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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Movie review: ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’

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(**1/2)

It’s kinda like a movie. Kinda like a sitcom. Not really either. But its sweet emotions and modern sensibilities eventually make it endearing.

It looks like the goal of the relaunch of “Cheaper by the Dozen,” a classic 1950 and 2003 white bread Disney family comedy, was to make it more topical and multi-grain. Certainly, the casting attests to that ambition. Zoey (Gabrielle Union, TV’s “L.A.’s Finest”) and Paul Baker (Zach Braff, TV’s “Scrubs”) own Bakers’ Breakfast, a diner that serves the first meal of the day all-day long. Both are divorced and bring their mixed bag of offspring into their new life.

Zach Braff, Gabrielle Union and cast of “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Zoey has a teen basketball-loving daughter, Deja (Journee Brown), and young son DJ (Andre Robinson) from her ex-husband Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett), a rich, successful basketball player. Paul brings his daughters, Ella (Kylie Rogers), Harley (Caylee Blosenski), who careens around in a wheelchair, and adopted Southeast Asian son Haresh (Aryan Simhadri) into the clan. Post wedding bells, the couple produced two sets of mixed-race twins: the rambunctious Luca and Luna (Leo Abelo Perry and Mykal-Michelle Harris) and the cute Bailey and Bronx (Christian and Sebastian Cote). After taking in Paul’s adolescent nephew Seth (Luke Prael), who comes from a broken home, that makes the Bakers an even dozen.

The animated family resides in the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Echo Park, in Central L.A., northwest of bustling downtown, west of trendy/bohemian Silver Lake and east of historic Chinatown. Child care, an ever-present concern, is helped by Paul’s dizzy ex-wife Kate (Erika Christensen). Money is another problem, and that’s solved as the couple expands their business. Its success brings them gobs of money, tosses them into an upper socioeconomic group and suburban neighborhood. Issues of culture clash and changing family values threaten their happiness.

The screenplay, by Kenya Barris (“Black-ish”) and Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry (“Black-ish”) doesn’t aim higher than it must. It sets the eclectic characters up way too much in the beginning, with frontloaded, excessive, backstory exposition. As the film progresses, the narrative gives family members life dramas to resolve. Funny, quick-wit dialogue in rapid delivery makes them comic and appealing. The script raises some of the social, racial and class issues blended, multiracial families confront. Though, it noticeably steers clear of the LGBTQ conversations kids have these days. Is that to protect the Disney PG brand? A fear of being too real? Debate among yourselves.

The rhythm of the laughs and schtick are so TV sitcomish audiences may wonder why this is a 1-hour, 47-minute streaming movie and not a series. Certainly, it’s not up to theatrical release standards. In Netflix’s hands, the material would be broken up into hour episodes, extended over a season and delve into today’s problems with more depth. Hopefully in a way that wouldn’t confound children or anger adults but still get the job done. Imagine if Deja’s hoop dreams, DJ’s sojourn into Goth culture, Harley’s experiences as a physically challenged teen, Seth’s juvenile delinquent behavior and Haresh’s encounters with bullying played out until they were well-developed with appropriate character arcs. Kids, tweens and teens might get hooked. And parents too. What’s on view is relevant, but too safe at a time when families are looking for enlightened guidance as they navigate an ever-changing world.

Director Gail Lerner (“Black-ish”) is not all that adventurous. Lots of scenes are obvious sets, especially home interiors. Her filmmaking doesn’t take real advantage of the great outdoors and the kind of freedom and range exterior shots allow. For the first 45 minutes the quick-paced short scenes (editor Troy Takaki, “Sweet Home Alabama”) lack pizazz. Verve finally emerges at a basketball game half-time show. The very competitive dads, Paul and Dom, have a dance off. It’s a welcomed burst of energy, Lerner milks the scene well and Braff clowns around like a comedy star. More of these moments were needed.

Speaking of cast, the entire ensemble brings more to the party than the filmmakers. Braff is an expert at mugging for the camera. Union plays the mom with the right amount of nurturing and the wife with just enough backbone and grit. Brown, Robinson, Prael, Blosenski, Simhadri and both sets of twins stand out. The actors make up for a lot of what the film lacks. They pull you into their emotional states until they give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. All romp around on sets (production designer Desma Murphy) that look too artificial with antics captured by harsh lighting (cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen) that contributes to that plastic TV-ish look. The musical score (John Paesano) is both soulfully contemporary and generic all at the same time.

Objectively, the film dares to take on pressing issues and hits some nice emotional peaks. Pity it is not as brave as it could have been. If “Cheaper by the Dozen” had owned up to what it really is, a potential series with opportunities to dig deep, it might have had more impact.

On Disney+ now.

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