If Cheaper by the Dozen is the last train to Auschwitz, then Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is a polite weekend with the Mengeles; heinous, creepy, and nerve-wracking, but an experience not necessarily ending in death. The original film, while hated like a seeping boil on the genitals, became even worse with subsequent viewings; a film so obnoxious and offensive that I became the first to correctly identify it as the opening salvo of the new culture wars. This time around, I was bored beyond belief; fidgety, sickened, and put through the mill, but ultimately, the movie is so harmless that it can’t be said to continue the first film’s near-fanatical propaganda. And yet, despite the retreat from outright insanity, the movie’s themes still push family as a social good; not bad in itself, but disturbing when it walks hand-in-hand with the belief that procreation is humankind’s most essential contribution. When we were licking each other’s ass cracks in caves, perhaps, but no longer as pressing in the modern age. Our planet is so teeming with the sweat and pain of unnecessary billions, in fact, that any film not actively campaigning for infanticide is morally reprehensible, if not treasonous.
Once again, the Baker clan shows up for a non-stop party of slapstick, phony sentiment, and clichés thought long buried, but this time they add a rival family – the Murtaughs – to push Tom (Steve Martin) through the competitive motions. Tom’s a bit insecure these days, what with the kids growing up and all, and he wants one last vacation with the entire family before he realizes with a start that he hasn’t loved his wife for a good decade at least. Clearly, this means that there will be a “cabin by the lake” and the standard “fix ‘er up” montage, set to a song that has “work” somewhere in the chorus, but otherwise has nothing at all to do with house repairs. Piper Perabo is back as oldest daughter Nora, only this time she’s dumped the organic orange juice-drinking, hostile-to-kids Ashton Kutcher, and has been righteously impregnated by the VP of an advertising agency. She can’t have been married more than a year, yet she is already ready to pop, which is but one of the mandates of the film: breed or face banishment. Hilary Duff is also back, only this time she’s even more anorexic; so wan and pasty, in fact, that we understand why she’s not a focus and remains largely in the shadows. The key character this time around seems to be the blossoming young daughter who falls in love at the lake and gets to shed her tomboy trappings, wear make-up, put on a dress, and learn how to defer to the phallus.
And oh yes, there’s Bonnie Hunt again as the beef-curtained mama; a little sexier this time out, but just as oblivious to any phrase, allusion, or image that doesn’t involve her children. She’s the kind of all-American suburban mom who immediately gets up from the couch to fix a pot of coffee if the conversation turns to “man talk”, or some such thing. And now that one of her own is about to give birth, another going off to college, and yet another getting interested in boys, it stands to reason that the third installment will feature Hunt’s late-in-life pregnancy, though not the bloody miscarriage, complications, and scream-filled death on the floor of the kitchen that I would have wanted. No, she’ll pump out number thirteen, glance in daddy’s direction, and receive the nod that yes, his salary as coach of a Division III-B college football team that plays its home games in an abandoned lot is still enough to cover the $35,400 a month in child-related expenses. Good, she’ll sigh, as she returns to nursing from her floor-scraping tits while defiantly not working. Because you know what they say: women who work outside the home are bound to raise deviants, rebels, and homosexuals. No one seems to notice that despite being around these kids every waking second, they are – without exception – spoiled, nasty, and so ill-mannered that it’s no surprise when one of them blows up a boat mere seconds after running through a restaurant with his pants around his ankles.
The plot, such as it is, all works towards the final “Cup Challenge”, which is the obligatory collection of sack races, egg tosses, and tugs-of-war. Simply put, I cannot imagine anyone over the age of three who would willingly spend their free time in this manner, but apparently, there are such families in our midst. Boat rides, water skiing, cheerful bonding with games and treasure hunts – these things are as foreign to my upbringing as direction, guidance, and unconditional love. More often than not, my vacations as a youth were more stressful than day-to-day living, and one of my few memories of a visit to California, for example, is being told that no, we would not be going to my first baseball game because, well, the old man is a cheap bastard who would rather pass out on the bed after a day at the track blowing the rest of the fun money. Or being humiliated for not finishing my dinner, even though I wasn’t sure why I had to eat a pound of asparagus when I was not yet ten years of age. And what would I know of athletic competitions with the family? When not forced at knifepoint to join pee-wee leagues when I had all the ability of a wheelchair-bound mouth breather, I preferred the interior life, both of the mind and couch variety. A three-legged race — with my pop? Only after a crushing monologue better suited for Eugene O’Neill would you be able to understand why that would be the height of impossibility.
Of course, the big competition ends in a dead heat, which forces a tie-breaking canoe race for the title. Does the pregnant daughter go into labor on the boat, forcing the Bakers to abandon the race and rush to the hospital? Do the Murtaugh kids rebel against their stuffy father (Eugene Levy, never more of a cynical sell-out), sprinting along with the Bakers to save the day? Nora has her baby (but oddly, no childbirth scene), but by my clock, the entire process – from first check in to swaddled infant — took no more than two minutes. And when Tom enters the delivery room, the baby is strikingly similar to a child of at least six months, though its hair is nowhere near the Michael Landon-ish dome of Rocky Balboa’s son in the second film. Tom’s insecurities erased, he lets forth the tear of a proud grandfather. So despite the grueling tennis matches, wheelchair geezers falling not once, but twice, into the lake, runaway jet skis, and unruly dogs destroying priceless china, it’s all worth it, because another squirming lump of clay that can be brainwashed, molded, and treated like a servant has been brought into the Baker fold. Even Nora’s husband – heretofore the least developed character in cinema history – stops objecting to Tom’s talk of “raising a good linebacker” and declares his obedience. Because as we know, the Bakers – who never read, talk intelligently, set goals, or learn manners – are superior to the Murtaughs, even though they are accomplished, dignified, presentable, and polite. Because of those traits, they are hopelessly stuffy, robotic, and unreal, hence the epitome of something not quite American.