Does every successful movie deserve a sequel? Granted, 2003’s ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ grossed a hefty $138 million domestically – a tidy sum for a ho-hum family comedy – but did the Baker clan and their innocuous adventures captivate audiences to such a degree that they demanded a continuation of their story? The folks at Fox apparently thought so, and since cashing in on a proven winner is easier and less risky than coming up with an original idea (of which there are precious few these days in Hollywood), the studio gave the green light to this painless ‘Meatballs’/’Vacation’ hybrid. And like those Doublemint chewing gum commercials of yore, the producers of ‘Cheaper by the Dozen 2’ aimed to double our pleasure and double our fun by linking the Bakers to another overstuffed family, the Murtaughs. That questionable choice ups the film’s cute kid ante to 20 – high enough to drive even the most doting parent stark raving mad. So did they succeed? Is ‘Cheaper by the Dozen 2’ twice as entertaining as the first installment?
No, but it’s far from the unbearable dud I expected. As these types of movies go, ‘Cheaper by the Dozen 2′ is enjoyable enough, thanks to its charming cast and likeable, if one-dimensional, characters. The plot is about as predictable and clichéd as they come, but the actors’ sincere approach goes a long way toward making the action palatable to a wide age range – the prime mission of a family-friendly romp. Those who enjoyed the “original” – itself a remake of the 1950 Clifton Webb-Myrna Loy classic about a couple and their 12 children – will find much to like about the sequel, even if the novelty by now has worn a bit thin.
This time around, the Bakers embark on a fun-filled summer getaway to a Wisconsin lake, but the bucolic atmosphere can’t quell the age-old rivalry between patriarch Tom (Steve Martin) and his former nemesis, Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), who has eight kids of his own, a new trophy wife (Carmen Electra), and lives on a sprawling estate called The Boulders, which dwarfs the modest rental where the Bakers are shacking up. The smug Jimmy relentlessly drives his children to achieve perfection, and their enviable successes make Tom feel as if his brood can’t measure up, much to the disgust of his level-headed wife, Kate (Bonnie Hunt). Amid this Hatfield and McCoy climate, a couple of romances develop between the Baker and Murtaugh children, ramping up the tension level, which reaches its peak during an Olympic-style family competition pitting the warring clans against each other. The Murtaughs have always trounced the Bakers in years past, but the hyper-competitive Tom is determined to reverse the trend and stick it to Jimmy once and for all.
Director Adam Shankman (‘Hairspray’) juggles the slapstick antics and heartwarming moments well, creating a nice balance between the two that keeps the film on an even keel. The tender scenes play best and almost succeed in wringing a tear or two, thanks to the low-sugar presentation and natural acting of Martin and Hunt, who make a believable couple and interact with the kids well. (Most of the time, Martin seems like he’s channeling Gil Buckman from ‘Parenthood,’ but what’s a guy to do? This is basically the same movie, just not as clever, relatable, or affecting.) Unfortunately, the comedy sequences possess a gimmicky feel, almost as if they’re following an “insert gag here” directive in the screenplay, and the antics with a pesky house rat, overzealous dog, sack full of fireworks, and an out-of-control lake-boarding episode inspire mild chuckles instead of the hoped-for hearty guffaws. Though Martin occasionally overdoes his wild-and-crazy shtick, he and Levy lock horns well, and each keeps the other on his toes.
All the kids, some of whom are really adults, also create a tight bond and don’t mug or jockey for attention the way most child actors do. As a result, we’re better able to buy into this motley group as a real family, which in turn helps sell the story. Despite the trite, contrived premise and an uneven script, ‘Cheaper by the Dozen 2’ makes some good points about forging one’s own path, finding one’s voice, and the strength of family ties. This sequel may not have been necessary, but it’s a shade better than many wholesome comedies, and a tolerable addendum to the original film.