At the party for their daughter's (Hilary Duff) high school graduation, Tom (Steven Martin) and Kate Baker (Bonnie Hunt) learn that their gigantic family (including Tom Welling, Piper Perabo, and Alyson Stoner) might be growing apart for the first time. Eager to rekindle the family feeling that has recently eluded them, the Bakers decide to spend their Labor Day holiday at a vacation house by their beloved Lake Winnetka. Once there, Tom struggles to keep the kids interested in family time and the outdoors, but finds that his old rival Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), his trophy wife Sarina (Carmen Electra), and their brood of 8 kids are living across the lake. Looking for a little competition, both in camping and parenting skills, Tom and Jimmy close out the summer with a bang.
This being the holiday season, I guess there must be miracle or two. Get this: "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" (IMDb listing) isn't all that bad. A sequel to the 2003 original (itself a remake), "Dozen 2" gets a makeover behind the camera, and the change really brightens up this franchise.
The new director is Adam Shankman, who worked with Martin and Levy in their smash hit, "Bringing Down the House," but also brought the world the despicable "The Pacifier," from earlier this year. Shankman is a studio company man. He gladly makes mainstream cinema for the masses, and this sequel doesn't break the mold. What Shankman does show in "Dozen 2" is restraint: a huge amount of mind-blowing restraint. Given a chance to make a sequel to one of the most excruciating and notorious family films of the last five years, and Shankman has the gall to pull back on the throttle? This movie completely blindsided me.
The original "Dozen" was a film based around pranks the kids pulled on those they didn't like, or just those who got in the way. Director Shawn Levy pitched this film at a tone that would be considered torture in some countries. He encouraged his cast to act as obnoxious as they possibly could, while also seemingly praising the Baker clan for their obscene and irresponsible breeding practices. After a five minute opener that explains why Hilary Duff, Tom Welling, and Piper Perabo won't be in the film very much, "Dozen 2" starts to tackle some interesting emotions: most notably, the empty nest syndrome that has finally come for Tom and Kate. There's a bittersweet shade to this production, as Tom tries to keep his beloved family together, yet sees them growing up and heading in separate directions, be it through marriage, college, or just the pre-teen lure of boys. Of course, Shankman beats all honest heartache into the ground with an overactive score and abuse of close-ups, but the mere appearance of a genuine feeling in a film as plastic as this is cause enough to crack open the champagne and jitterbug.
Also missing from the mix is the film's reliance on bottom-feeding humor. Oh sure, there's a callback to the "meat underwear" sequence from the original film, and Shankman makes sure Martin's testicles get slapped around as if they insulted his Momma, but the comic violence and general prank atmosphere is dialed way down this time around. It's replaced with screenwriting that explores the growing pains (and dating woes) of the kids, and the summertime camp location, which is ripe for set-pieces. Again, Shankman doesn't challenge the material, but the little efforts, including a fart reference here instead of a joke, make all the difference in the world.
And Shankman is far more comfortable giving screentime to national treasure Bonnie Hunt, who gets the film's biggest laugh when Kate is forced to wear one of Sarina's shirts for dinner. Hunt could do the Mommy role in her sleep, but she gives her scenes a slight kick, and shares warm chemistry with Steve Martin. Frankly, they could lose the kids entirely, as a film following these two actors would be much more appealing.
It's a strange feeling to come out of a movie aimed at kids, much less a sequel to something like "Cheaper by the Dozen," and not feel as though I need a shower and a vasectomy. "Dozen 2" is mild and charming, and gives me hope that maybe someone realizes that not all family films need to be entirely assaulting and insufferable.
Filmfodder Grade: B-