A family sitcom writ very large, “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” sends the Bakers of Midland, Ill., on summer vacation, along with enough life lessons and cutely precocious kiddie dialogue to furnish an entire season of “Full House.” Bland, canned but studiously professional sequel retains most of the principals from Fox’s family-friendly 2003 hit, including the ever-reliable Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Auds who contributed to the first “Cheaper’s” $138 million domestic take should return for a second round, with homevid returns likely to eclipse any theatrical shortfall.
Despite the fact that he and wife Kate (Hunt) have 12 children, about nine of whom have yet to hit puberty, former football coach Tom Baker (Martin) is suffering from empty-nest syndrome. Oldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo) is about to have a baby and move to Texas with husband Bud (Jonathan Bennett, filling in for Ashton Kutcher), while fashion-savvy Lorraine (Hilary Duff) is headed to New York for an internship.
The solution: one last family trip up to beautiful Lake Winnetka, Wis. But to Tom’s dismay, he discovers soon after their arrival that most of the lakefront property is now owned by his childhood nemesis, the filthy-rich Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), who has eight kids of his own as well as a dishy new wife, Sarina (Carmen Electra).
And so the stage is set for a prolonged and juvenile game of one-upsmanship between Tom and Jimmy that inevitably draws in their respective clans, punctured every so often by the stirrings of interfamily adolescent romance. Moony-eyed Charlie Baker (Tom Welling) finds himself smitten with Jimmy’s daughter Anne (Jaime King), a Harvard-educated hottie who wants to become an artist.
Meanwhile, in the most engaging subplot, tomboyish Sarah Baker (Alyson Stoner) develops a crush on Eliot Murtaugh (Taylor Lautner, of “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D”).
Tom of course is not thrilled about his kids fraternizing with the enemy (especially when said enemy has a nicer lake house and lots of expensive water-skiing gear). This sets the pattern for every conflict in Sam Harper’s script, as Tom continually acts out in ways that are overbearing and embarrassing — to the dismay of his sensible, almost too well-adjusted children — while Kate helpfully supplies subtext along the lines of “The tighter you hold on, the harder they’re gonna pull away.”
Showing more commitment than the role deserves, Martin mugs up a storm — dancing on boat docks, flailing about in a wet suit — in his patented lovable-curmudgeon fashion. Hunt, warmly engaging as ever, gets some of the better lines and knows exactly what to do with them, even if her Kate does look unreasonably gorgeous for a mother of 12.
Levy, the juiciest addition to the cast, ultimately can’t do much with a part that’s all generic condescension and smothering arrogance, though he and Martin do work up a certain level of anti-chemistry.
Inheriting the helming reins from Shawn Levy (who produces with Ben Myron) is Adam Shankman, whose last film was the similarly tot-heavy “The Pacifier.” Shankman directs the younger thesps to speak perfectly in turn and sometimes in unison, a quality that makes them seem about as human as the kids in “Children of the Corn.” Stoner, nonetheless, is an endearingly vulnerable standout as Sarah.
When it comes to providing emotional cues, John Debney’s score is as subtle as a fireworks display at a clambake — one of the many violently staged set pieces that occasionally rupture pic’s flatly polished style. Soundtrack boasts all the usual suspects, from “We Are Family” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” to Madonna’s “Holiday.”