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Published: Wednesday, 12/21/2005

Movie review: Cheaper by the Dozen 2 **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Among the surprises in Steve Martin's lighter-than-fiber-optic Cheaper by the Dozen 2, which opens today, is that it comes to us without a helpful subtitle. All sequels to lousy comedies need helpful subtitles, and the 2003 Cheaper by the Dozen was so cloying and pratfall-crazy, and this follow-up is so unnecessary (though somewhat sweetly dumb), a subtitle would place us in the proper mind set.

For instance, Cheaper by the Dozen 2: The Sweatshop Years.

Or Cheaper by the Dozen 2: Six of You Are Adopted But We Forgot Which Six. I like it, adds drama.

Instead, no, if Cheaper by the Dozen 2 had a subtitle it would be something zingier and more conventional, like Cheaper by the Dozen 2: Steve Martin Goes Waterskiing and Yells "Whaaaaa!"

Or Cheaper by the Dozen 2: The Bakers Take Away Life Lessons, Like Family is Important.

When we left the Baker family - which, incidentally (and creepily), lives on a farm in Illinois far from civilization, in order to keep the species healthy (at least that's what I took away) - Dad Baker (Martin) had quit his job as a college football coach to help rear his 12 children, which I never quite understood because Ma Baker (Bonnie Hunt) is constantly worried about money and a college football coaching position would pay, at the least, for a fleet of nannies to come in a few times a week. Anyway, Ma Baker also wrote a successful book about the family and how she does it, and when the sequel begins, children are moving out.

Or escaping.

Among the escapees: Lorraine Baker, played by Hilary Duff, who appears emaciated, but instead, I will be generous and suggest her character is moving to New York City to intern at a fashion magazine and the stress is making her thin. Additional escapees include: Charlie Baker, played by Tom "Smallville" Welling, and Nora Baker, played by Piper Perabo, who is married and pregnant (yet, astonishingly, enters a rowing competition in her ninth month). The remaining nine love nature and animals, play extreme sports, get in trouble, and leave little impression.

They were expendable.

Which is perhaps why Dad Baker grows nostalgic for the days when the Bakers were even creepier and did everything together, like walking side-by-side in a long single line and holding hands. He proposes they spend one last summer together up at a lake in Wisconsin. At this point, I would like to say that even the family dog thinks the Baker clan is ridiculously sweet and bland.

You can tell a lot about a movie family by its dog, and this one jumps into shots but interestingly never looks at the Bakers directly and always seems to be looking off-screen - probably at the animal trainer holding the hot dogs just behind the camera.

You can also tell a lot about what to think of modern parenting from watching Cheaper by the Dozen 2. The original Cheaper by the Dozen novel was written in the 1940s, and it clearly considered discipline and authority the job of the father. In the films, that's left to Hunt (who also writes the book) - keeping with how films today see mothers as competent and fathers as ineffectual. The plot of Cheaper by the Dozen 2 even lends a couple of ideas on how we regard discipline itself: At the lake, Martin loves his kids too much to be firm with them, but Eugene Levy, as a rich, hard-nosed father of eight, is too firm, and his kids come to resent him.

Anyway, I'm of two minds about Cheaper by the Dozen 2. There is the exhausted, skeptical side who could recite this movie in his sleep and swears when Martin cries a single tear at the end, it is motion picture's first digital tear of joy. Watch for it: The tear is way too perfectly formed and Martin is clearly not overwhelmed enough to generate moistness in his tear ducts.

The other side of me had a fine spaced-out 94-minutes or so in the company of the Bakers. All of the actors here are nice. They are very good at being nice and still managing to show a bit of character. They were not mean-spirited and dumb like that dysfunctional prison break of a family in Yours, Mine & Ours. Consider Martin, in particular. He wears movies like this so lightly by now he leaves you in a kind of awe that one can still come off friendly at the movies without driving you up a wall.

One final note: Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is practically a northwest Ohio production. Which is to say, it co-stars not only Alyson Stoner, who grew up in Toledo and plays Sarah, the tomboy character, but Jonathan Bennett, who grew up in Rossford and played Lindsay Lohan's crush in Mean Girls. He plays Piper's husband here. So, maybe not exactly a ringing advertisement for Toledowood, but not mincemeat, either.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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