Dir: Shawn Levy. US. 2003. 98 mins.

Holiday movies don't come much more undemanding than this. Sugary one moment and slapstick the next, Steve Martin's return to family comedy is ideally suited to its Christmas Day US release slot and could - thanks also the presence of tween star Hilary Duff - draw a sizeable and demographically broad audience of over-stuffed and sentimental moviegoers when it opens in the US on Dec 25. The appeal probably won't last long into the New Year, however, and it may not be evident at all when the film starts its international rollout in January. International audiences are often cool to this kind of Hollywood schmaltz and Martin, in spite of his domestic success earlier this year with Bringing Down The House, still has less pulling power overseas.

Though it is set in a contemporary world of stressed-out parents and sassy kids, Cheaper By The Dozen is a family comedy with a distinctly old-fashioned feel. Not surprising, given that the source material is a 1948 book, previously filmed in 1950, about a suburban mum and dad and their rowdy brood of 12 kids.

The new screen version, steered by Just Married director Shawn Levy, has Martin playing college football coach Tom Baker and Bonnie Hunt (The Green Mile) his aspiring-author wife Kate. When Tom and Kate both get big career breaks, they suddenly face the challenge of balancing work with the care of their children, who range in age from mischievous twin toddlers to an angry teen hunk (Welling, from TV series Smallville).

The script, by Sam Harper (Just Married) and the Toy Story team of Joel Cohen and Alex Sokolow, offers several narrative threads: Tom and Kate eventually realise, of course, that their family takes precedence over their careers; one misfit kid finds his place in the sibling hierarchy; and eldest daughter Nora (Perabo) learns that her brothers and sisters are more important than a jerky boyfriend (Just Married star Ashton Kutcher in an uncredited performance).

However, the narrative really only serves to pass time between the film's warm and fuzzy moments of family togetherness and its frenetic slapstick sequences. Like the somewhat comparable Daddy Day Care (whose sequel is being written by Cohen and Sokolow), the comedy is very basic - repeated pratfalls, messy food fights, vomit gags - but just about effective enough to raise some laughs from kids and more playful parents. The film often falls back on montage sequences accompanied by peppy versions of old and new pop songs. Singer-actress Duff, whose current pop chart success in the US should give the film a handy promotional boost, contributes one performance to the soundtrack.

Martin (who will re-team with director Levy on the upcoming Pink Panther prequel) mugs his way through the story without calling much on his real comic talent and Duff (seen earlier this year in The Lizzie McGuire Movie and Agent Cody Banks) doesn't stray far from her usual screen persona as the family's teen neat freak. Kutcher's relatively brief performance produces some quite funny moments.

The younger child actors are all, naturally, adorable but several of them are theatrical beyond their years and work a bit too hard to stand out from the large cast. They are not helped by a script that gives them some gratingly cute lines of slangy dialogue.

Prod cos: 20th Century Fox, Robert Simonds Productions
US dist:
20th Century Fox
Int'l dist (most terrs):
Robert Simonds, Ben Myron, Michael Barnathan
Sam Harper, Joel Cohen, Alex Sokolow, based on the novel by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Jonathan Brown
Prod des:
Nina Ruscio
George Folsey
Christophe Beck
Main cast:
Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hilary Duff, Tom Welling, Piper Perabo