Parenthood is not an adventure for the weak-hearted, and Steve Martin has had great success with movies that celebrate that reality with a potent mix of screwball comedy and bitter-sweet heart. Parenthood (1989) was a classic, the Father of the Bride films (1991, 1995) yanked laughter, tears, and ticket dollars from many a movie patron, and 2003's highly successful (if not critically-acclaimed) Cheaper by the Dozen was a respectable addition to the Martin canon. Cheaper by the Dozen 2, unfortunately, is the exception that proves the rule—great comedic talent (Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Eugene Levy), a bevy of cute kids, and a funny set-up can't camouflage a less-than-stellar story. Cheaper 2 has a script as tired as, well, your average parent.
The premise is promising enough. Tom Baker (Martin) and his wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) are facing the very early stages of Empty Nest Syndrome. Daughter Lorraine (Hilary Duff) is graduating from high school and planning a move to New York to take on a fashion internship. Oldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo) is married, expecting the first Baker grandchild, and moving to Houston. (Sadly, Nora's old beau Hank, played in the first Cheaper to great comedic effect by Ashton Kutcher, is nowhere to be seen.) Even with eldest son Charlie (Tom Welling) out of the house, there are still nine more kids at home, but Tom is having a hard time letting go of any of his brood. Pining for the old times, he plans a late summer family vacation at a Lake Winnetka—the site of many previous happy family gatherings. The entire clan signs on, and after an oddly slow start to the film, the Baker family and the movie itself get on the road.
The Bakers arrive to find the "Big House" they've always rented in a state of disrepair. On the other side of the lake, Tom's old nemesis Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy) has built the "Boulders," a summer home as ostentatious as Jimmy himself. Soon, Tom discovers that Jimmy now owns most of the lake, has married a young new wife (Carmen Electra), and has groomed his eight over-achieving children to "reflect the best aspects of his gene pool." Despite Tom's promise to his family to not resume a competitive feud with Jimmy, the two men are soon embroiled in heated contests over everything from who is the best tennis player to who is the best father. The rivalry becomes an obsession, leading both men to first amuse and then alienate their families.
Tom and Jimmy eventually agree to settle their feud at the Labor Day Cup—a family vs. family epic conflict involving sack races and egg tosses. Can Tom regain the respect of his brood enough to get them to participate? Will they win? Will the Baker grandchild arrive in the middle of it all? How many times will the unidentified old man in the wheelchair get inadvertently pushed into the lake? These are the sorts of questions that Cheaper by the Dozen 2 sets out to answer.
At times, Cheaper 2 has a madcap feel reminiscent of Meatballs or any of the Chevy Chase Vacation movies. But the jokes seem overly familiar and worn out, and there are moments when Martin's mugging and zany physical comedy feel a little desperate. The film suffers from erratic pacing, with the silliness pausing for lengthy Moments of Family Warmth. The movie's messages are great—the importance of family, of kindness to one another, of loyalty even when a member of the tribe is at less than his best—but the script relies on such conventional formulas that potentially heart-rending moments lose their way in all the sap. There are laughs to be sure, and poignant scenes as well, but they are fewer and farther between than they could or should be, given the talent involved.
Carmen Electra is a nice surprise, making Jimmy's new spouse Sarina more than the expected trophy wife and giving her character an empathetic vulnerability and warmth. Young Alyson Stoner is a standout in scenes exploring preteen tomboy Sarah's first crush. Bonnie Hunt is wonderfully understated and truly funny—especially in a scene where she is forced to wear one of Sarina's more revealing sweaters and endure the ogling of her own family. And there is a nice tenderness in the relationship between Hunt's Kate and Martin's Tom. In fact, the entire cast is uniformly strong, but with fourteen Bakers (plus a son-in-law and an over-exuberant dog) and ten Murtaughs, all that talent is diffused. Often, Cheaper 2 is forced to rely on references back to the first movie in order to establish or remind us of any character development, making the storytelling feel more than a little lazy.
Cheaper by the Dozen 2 suffers from too many characters and too few fresh ideas. Its heart is in the right place, but a reliance on gimmicks and sentiment undermines the story. In the end, both the laughs and the tears in Cheaper by the Dozen 2 come just a little too cheap.Discussion starters
- The Bakers and the Murtaughs have conflicting parenting styles, with Tom emphasizing love and flexibility, and Jimmy emphasizing discipline and structure. Who is right?
- There is plenty of friction in the Baker clan, but there is also forgiveness. Does forgiving someone who has offended you enable his or her behavior? What is the appropriate response when a loved one repeatedly annoys you?
- Tom has a hard time letting his young daughter go on an unsupervised date. What is an appropriate age for dating? Does it depend on the individual?
- The film gives some good examples of Competitiveness Gone Bad. When is a competitive spirit a good thing? How can we tell when competitiveness is out of control?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is rated PG for some very mild language (including a few instances of taking the Lord's name in vain) and some crude humor. While siblings sometimes say demeaning things to each other, overall the film affirms the importance of treating others with respect and kindness.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/05/06
Despite the return of Steve Martin and the addition of Eugene Levy, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 isn't impressing Christian film critics.
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says the movie "isn't as bad as it's being labeled." He adds, "For those who enjoy their pro-family messages wrapped in warm-hearted Hallmark moments, the movie delivers." But he does challenge Cheaper on several points, asking why director Adam Shankman "felt compelled to fixate on Carmen Electra's cleavage and curves? Or why he included a strident abuse of Jesus' name? Or why … he decided to gloss over glaring cases of kids behaving badly? It just doesn't seem to fit."
Meanwhile, Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) is much more positive about the film. "Cheaper 2 has plenty of warmth and heart among its funny shticks. Though Steve Martin and some of the others are downright goofy at times, the movie's silliness is tempered by carefully constructed moments of relatable drama and adventure."
Patty Moliterno (Christian Spotlight) says, "I saw this movie with my husband and 5 children (ages 18 to 1). Afterwards, we all were of the same opinion. We wasted our time and money."
Plenty of mainstream critics also feel they paid too much for Cheaper.