Tom Baker is a successful high school football coach in a small Illinois town. Although there’s not much money, the Baker family (Mom, Dad and 12 kids) not only manages to make ends meet with older vehicles, shared rooms and lots of PB&J sandwiches, but is actually happy about their state in life. Still, even cheerful people can’t help but wonder if they could be even more content—especially with an increase of finances. That's why Tom takes the bait when he's offered the head coaching position at his alma mater Northwestern University in Chicago.
The Baker children, however, are resistant to the whole idea of uprooting from their bucolic surroundings. And their fears of the unknown quickly begin coming true once they settle into their new Evanston home where a brand new set of trials comes with city life and its faster pace. One teenager is teased as a country bumpkin. A younger child is bullied at school. Several wind up fighting on the playground. In contrast to how it was "back home," the Bakers seem hurried, stressed and quick to squabble (“Everybody turned into a jerk when we moved here!”). Then to add insult to injury, Kate (Mom) finds out that in order for her new family-history book to sell, her PR manager wants her on a whirlwind publicity tour for two weeks.
Can Dad handle his "dirty dozen" solo? And more importantly (at least to him), can he juggle coaching at the university level with the responsibilities of being Mr. Mom ... without losing his job and peaceful home life?
This movie features 12 children just like the 1950s movie of the same title. Beyond that, there's very little that connects the two except the fact that both resonate with a very strong pro-family tone. And not just that families are valuable. But that large families are valuable. Moviegoers won't be able to help but come away with the idea that sizeable families—with their built in support systems—may just be superior to small ones. When a neighbor bitingly remarks that she and her husband wanted “[only] one perfect child and that’s what we got,” the attitude is made to seem selfish and odd (the original flick took on Planned Parenthood with a similar denunciation).
While Mr. Baker may be a bit goofy at times, he’s still the head of the household and deserves—and gets—respect. One of the reasons he’s admired by his children is his playfulness. An opening scene, for instance, shows him swatting the bumps on his bed (actually some of his children hiding under the covers) to smooth it out. Another scene has him playing “apple-smear” with his kids—a baseball-like game involving a tennis racquet and pitched Red Delicious. In addition, Tom displays great patience with his children, especially when they accidentally break things or situations go awry. And he loves every child as an individual. [Spoiler Warning] At one point, he goes to great lengths to locate a runaway son who feels like an outcast. Also, when Charlie is repeatedly picked on and teased at his new school, he refuses to retaliate (and judging by his size he likely would have won any brawl).
Both parents show vast affection for each other and aren’t afraid to show it in front of their children. When the parents begin kissing at one point, the teenage Lorraine exclaims, “Can you wait till I leave the room?” The answer is no. Displaying affection is just part and parcel of the Baker family’s intimacy.
When missteps happen along the way, typically they’re resolved by film’s end. Upset at having to leave his girlfriend and the attained popularity at his former school, eldest son Charlie shows disrespect for his father in several scenes (e.g., “Thanks for ruining my life!”). Although Dad could have—and should have—handled this attitude more directly, Charlie does manage to come around by closing credits. An apology is made, and Dad admits his shortcomings, too.
One brief line reminds viewers of the brevity of life (“I blinked and 22 years passed”). To present Hank (Nora’s boyfriend) as selfish and narcissistic, the director shows him to be obsessed with video games. He’s also shown as clearly anti-children (referring to them as “monsters”).
When one of the children states incorrectly that Jesus died on Easter, a sibling correctly points out that He was actually resurrected on that day.
All of the Baker children live under the same roof except Nora, the oldest. She lives with her egotistical boyfriend (Hank). To their credit, both parents strongly disapprove. And when she comes over to baby-sit her siblings—sneaking Hank in to stay with her for the night—she's strongly rebuked by Dad. He makes it clear that, “This house is G rated.” In another scene when the twentysomething couple begin making out, Mom yells, “Nora, stop!” In an effort to pacify inquisitive neighbors as to his family's size, Tom quips, “I couldn’t keep her [his wife] off me.”
All of the “violence” here is of the cartoonish variety. Attempting to rescue a neighbor boy who is swinging on the family’s chandelier, Tom (and fixture) coming crashing to the floor. A repairman trying to replace it winds up falling with the light crashing down on him, too. A mis-thrown dart nearly hits Dad. A hatchet winds up crashing through a closet door (no explanation is provided for how or why it was thrown). Picked on at their new school, several Baker children get into a fight at school (they're sent to the principal). When a large inflatable play area accidentally winds up being over-inflated and bursting at a birthday party, Tom gets rocketed into the air. When he lands, he knocks out a few of the birthday boy's teeth. (The lad thinks it was all worth it because it made his party special.) Norah hits her boyfriend with a pillow when she begins to realize he’s self-absorbed.
Crude or Profane Language
Outtakes feature one use of "d--n" and a "bleep." Referring to Tom’s new boss, one of the twins remarks, “Mom’s right, he is a wiener.” Several variations of “sucks” join a couple misuses of “Oh, god!”
Drug and Alcohol Content
As Kate verbally highlights the contents of her book about her family history, she makes a disappointing comment about a romantic evening with “too many beers” that ultimately contributed to her getting pregnant. A flashback scene to the Baker’s wedding shows the bride and groom (and some guests) drinking champagne. While on her book tour, a brief shot shows Kate drinking a martini. Parents (not the Bakers) drink at a neighborhood birthday party.
Other Negative Elements
When an athletic cup accidentally winds up in the family’s spaghetti, one child loses his lunch. A second child happening upon the mess does likewise, then loses his balance and falls in the muck. In an effort to coax Nora into dumping her boyfriend, the younger Baker siblings concoct a plan that involves two unpleasant pranks. The first results in Hank tripping into a kiddie pool. Then, while waiting for his clothes to dry, his underwear is soaked in raw hamburger—leading to a scene in which the family dog takes several bites at Hank’s crotch. Despite her father grounding the clan from attending a neighbor’s birthday party, one of the Baker children (Sarah) organizes a visit to the event anyway.
I should also point out that the oldest Baker children do very little to help control their younger—more out-of-control-at-times—siblings. Of course, this is to set up the whole comedic basis that without Mom’s presence Dad will be at a disadvantage in handling the home front. While it works onscreen for humor's sake, it may broadcast the idea that older siblings are relatively worthless at helping domestically.
Cheaper by the Dozen’s three main themes are family, family and family. Tom lives by the sacrificial motto: “If I screw up raising my kids nothing I achieve will matter much!” No minister, no parachurch leader, no counselor could say it better! While it’s certainly not a perfect film, there’s no doubt here that kids are a blessing, not things to be endured or ignored in favor of personal and career goals. Plus, in a day and age where cohabitation is the norm, it’s refreshing to hear a father put value a G-rated home. Unfortunately, this movie didn't restrain itself enough get that same rating.