Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Cheaper by the Dozen 2

To say that 2003's remake of Cheaper by the Dozen was not my favorite movie of that year would be a vast understatement. The film was a noisy, unfunny slog that wasted and humiliated the talents of Steve Martin, and found its place on my worst film of the year list. This fact, combined with the fact that I had to watch the also terrible Yours, Mine, and Ours remake in November did not exactly put me in good spirits when advertisements for Cheaper by the Dozen 2 started to pop up at my local theater. Imagine my surprise to find that although the film mostly follows the path of tired slapstick and kids running out of control that the first film blazed, director Adam Shankman (The Pacifier) has also given the film some heart in the form of a subplot concerning one of the Baker children discovering love. It's this one element that makes the film almost tolerable from time to time, and certainly better than the first. Not that that's saying much.

As the film opens, Baker family household heads, Tom (Steve Martin) and Kate (Helen Hunt), are trying to deal with the changes that are occurring in their large family. Their eldest daughter (Piper Perabo) is pregnant, another one of their daughters (Hillary Duff) has just graduated from high school and is set to begin a job on a fashion magazine in New York in a couple months, and all of the other children seem to be growing up little by little. Fearful that his family is drifting apart, Tom proposes a vacation where they will all go to the old rental cabin in the woods that they spent past summers in. When they arrive, Tom is met almost immediately by an old rival, Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy) - a highly competitive man who has a large group of children of his own, a much younger than him trophy wife (Carmen Electra), and enjoys rubbing it in Tom's face that he is better than him in almost everything, from controlling his kids to winning trophies. The competitive spirit is rekindled almost the second the two men are reunited, and they drag both of their individual families into a series of contests against each other, when both families really only want to work together instead of against.

The main plot of Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is woefully tired and worn, and offers plenty of opportunities for the usual standards that we see in these type of comedies aimed at kids such as Daddy Day Care, Rebound, and the recent Yours, Mine, and Ours. We've got plenty of opportunities for the kids to cause mass chaos that if any kid would try to do in real life, they would probably be sent to juvenile prison, but in this movie, they are not punished at all for actions such as shooting off fireworks at a fancy banquet dinner (causing a helpless old man to fall off a ledge, and a boat to explode) or stealing a vehicle and destroying public property. The Baker family dog also gets plenty of chances to cause chaos and destruction of its own. And, of course, we've got Steve Martin cashing a paycheck as he mugs his face and basically does nothing but look exasperated and perform third-rate slapstick and pratfalls that you can see coming from a mile away. Naturally, there is the overly sweet to the point of sappiness conclusion where the two families are forced to work together. All of this I expected, as the original film was built entirely around these traits. I sunk a little in my seat as I began to think that the filmmakers were not going to make any attempt to break from the norm. But then, something happened...

A little subplot came around concerning the tomboyish daughter of the Baker family, Sarah (played by Alyson Stoner), and her budding relationship with one of the Murtaugh kids (Taylor Lautner). Whereas the entire rest of the film felt contrived and similar, the scenes involving these two kids seemed almost sweet and heartfelt. The main reason is that it is during these brief, fleeting moments that the film stops using the kids as instruments of chaos and destruction, and lets them act as, well, kids - specifically kids experiencing love for the first time. These moments work because this part of the story is something that both kids and adults can probably relate to, and the film for the most part treats the subplot with dignity and respect. I say "for the most part", because the screenplay just can't help but throw some inappropriate slapstick into the mix, such as the scene where both kids' fathers spy on them in a movie theater while the children are on a date, and one of the fathers winds up dangling upside down from a balcony. This entire subplot is not enough to save the film, but it does help lift it up a little bit higher than it would if the storyline was not there.

Much like the plot and the predictable comic set pieces that dominate the movie, the performances are about what you would expect. Both Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt are likable as always, but they really do deserve better than this - Martin especially, particularly after seeing his honest and winning performance in Shopgirl just a month or two ago. Eugene Levy continues to waste his talents in forgettable comic roles, though I do admit, this movie is a step up from his last film, The Man. I just am more convinced than ever that the guy doesn't know how to say "no" to a script. Of the children, aside from the previously mentioned Alyson Stoner, none of them make any sort of real impression, and are there to simply cause destruction or react to it. The only one who does stick out in my mind is Hillary Duff, and it's not because of anything she does in this movie, rather it is because the poor girl looks near anorexic and skeletal in this film. Someone give this girl a pizza, we don't need another "idol" for kids to feel ashamed of themselves because they're not as thin as their favorite teen actor/singer. This, combined with the fact that her character seems particularly snobby and just plain unlikable makes her the most hateful character in the film.

Watching Cheaper By the Dozen 2 was a strange experience, as it was about as bad as I expected, but at the same time, it was better. The movie works from time to time, but not enough for me to recommend it. Hollywood really needs to stop churning out these "big name star is surrounded by numerous kids - chaos ensues" movies, because I'm really starting to get burned out on them. Hopefully someone in the business will feel the same way before I have to sit through Cheaper by the Dozen 3. Yes, this movie was better than the original. But isn't that kind of like saying getting a frontal lobotomy is better than getting decapitated?

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