Sunday, February 01, 2004

'Cheaper By the Dozen': Not Your Typical Hollywood Movie

Cast of 'Cheaper by the Dozen'

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 1, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday 2004]

It’s definitely not your typical Hollywood movie.

That was the thought that crossed my mind the other day after I saw “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the new film starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.

Martin plays a man named Tom Baker. Tom has 12 children (an even dozen)—and, amazingly, he has them all with the same wife! That is definitely noteworthy, since most couples in movies today don’t stay together long enough to have 2 children, let alone 12!)

When the story begins, Tom and Kate Baker, along with 11 of their 12 children, are living in a small town in Illinois. Their life together is understandably chaotic (with that many children, how could it not be?!), and this chaos makes for some very funny moments early in the movie. But in spite of the conflicts, the sibling rivalries and the other domestic disasters they have to deal with, the Bakers are happy. And their happiness is clearly rooted in the fact that Tom and Kate have made many personal, loving sacrifices for their children.

He’s a successful Division 3 football coach; she’s an aspiring writer who’s just finished her first book. But their careers take second place to their family—at least at the beginning of the film. And the amazing thing is, this quality of putting family first is portrayed as something positive!

Do you see why I found this movie refreshingly different?

In fact, it’s only when Tom and Kate begin to let their selfish desires control them: it’s only then that serious problems develop—problems which threaten to tear their family apart. Tom ends up taking a big coaching job at his old alma mater, against the wishes of most of his children. He does it for himself—because this is his “dream job.” So yes, he ends up making a lot more money and moving his family into a big house in a plush, suburban neighborhood—but no one under his roof is very happy. In fact, most of his children are miserable.

Kate, on the other hand, finishes her first book, and a company agrees to publish it. With one stipulation: they tell her she has to leave her family immediately and go on a two week promotional tour. She struggles with the decision, because she knows deep down inside that her children probably won’t behave very well if she’s away for that length of time. And yet, when all is said and done, she goes.

Not surprisingly, her worst fears become reality! And that’s when some of the funniest scenes in the movie occur, with poor Tom trying to keep the house and family in order while coaching his football team at the same time.

I won’t tell you how it’s all resolved (in case you haven’t seen the film), but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the ending. Suffice it to say, both Tom and Kate come back to their senses.

Now I’m not normally in the business of promoting movies from the pulpit, but I will recommend this one (except for very young children). I’ll recommend it for all the reasons I just mentioned, plus these 3:
First of all, “Cheaper by the Dozen” portrays children as a great blessing. And it casts a positive light on large families. That’s an extremely rare phenomenon these days! In the modern media couples who have more than 2 children are usually made out to be irresponsible oddballs (at best!). However, in this film, Tom and Kate Baker are good, generous, caring people, who find parenthood deeply rewarding.

Believe it or not, the oddballs of the movie are their 2 materialistic neighbors—a couple that has only one child for purely selfish reasons.

Secondly, the moral tone of this film, generally speaking, is very good—the one glaring exception being the reference to a vasectomy at the very beginning. I thought it was marvelous, for example, that Tom and Kate would not allow their oldest daughter Nora to stay in the same room with her boyfriend when the two of them visited. You see, Nora and her boyfriend were living together, and Tom and Kate did not approve. Well, hallelujah! As parents, their attitude was, “We can’t stop you from sleeping together when you’re back at your place, but you’re not going to do that here!”

Can you imagine this in a Hollywood movie?


And finally, it’s a question of love. This movie, you see, glorifies real love (which is why I’m focusing on the film in this homily): it glorifies the kind of love we heard about in today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians 13. And that’s such a shift from what we normally encounter in the modern media, where love is often used as a synonym for sex, selfishness and self-gratification.

For example, St. Paul says here that real love is patient. When the family frog jumped into the scrambled eggs at breakfast one day and caused a disaster in the kitchen, Tom and Kate Baker had to practice patience—and it wasn’t easy, as you might imagine!

Real love “does not seek its own interests,” St. Paul tells us in this text. Tom Baker forgot that when he took his dream coaching job at his old alma mater. Thankfully, for the sake of his family, he remembered it before the end of the movie, and he went back to seeking their interests first.

St. Paul says that real love “does not brood over injury” (which basically means that real love is a forgiving love). Tom and his oldest son Charlie (a high school teenager) were in conflict throughout the story—even before the family moved out of their old home. They said a number of unkind things to each other. And when Charlie wasn’t able to fit in at his new high school, his anger and resentment toward his dad grew even deeper.

For this relationship to be repaired, there needed to be forgiveness—lots of forgiveness—on both sides.

Neither Tom nor Charlie could brood over the injury the other had caused.

And how about this one: “[Love] does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth”? When Tom and Kate Baker refused to allow their daughter to sleep with her boyfriend at their house, their daughter didn’t “feel” like her parents loved her. But they did! They loved her enough to tell her the truth; they loved her enough to try to keep her from committing a serious sin. (Please remember that, young people, when your parents lovingly say, “No” to you after you ask for their permission to do something that’s wrong, or something they strongly disapprove of!)

Now if there is one negative aspect to this movie, it’s that we don’t find anything in it about the Source. Yes, we see real love exemplified and even glorified, but we’re not told anything about “where” this love comes from.

Of course, those of us who have read the four Gospels and the First Letter of John know the answer anyway. We know that the true Source of all genuine, real love is Jesus Christ! As it says in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”

The love that St. Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 13 is actually the selfless, patient, forgiving, self-sacrificial love of Jesus. It’s the love our Lord showed us when he walked the face of this earth, and, most especially, when died on the Cross for our sins.

Consequently, if we want real love to fill our hearts, and to be present in our families and other relationships, then we need to work very hard at cultivating a deep, personal relationship with “the Source.” Once a week at Mass, although essential, will not be sufficient. Our personal communication and interaction with Jesus has to go far beyond that.

Is it worth the effort? I believe it is. And if you need further proof of that, just consider the core message of “Cheaper by the Dozen.” You see, when all is said and done, the core message of this film is that real love, when it’s put into practice, reaps tremendous rewards—even in this life!

When they practiced real love, the Bakers were a happy family, in spite of their difficult and sometimes chaotic lifestyle. On the other hand, when they failed to practice real love, their lives were depressing and miserable—even though they had lots more money, and lived in a beautiful house, in a ritzy, high-class neighborhood.

The presence of real love made all the difference.

May all of us make the daily decision to cultivate a deep, personal relationship with the Source of this love, Jesus Christ, so that real love will make a lasting, positive difference in our lives.