If you’ve been watching Smallville, you know that Tom Welling is appearing in movie theaters this season. Reprising his thankless role as Charlie, son of Tom Baker (Steve Martin) in the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, Welling is as pretty as might be expected, and he’s a darn good sport. But he and everyone else here deserves better than this careless, mirthless concoction. Everybody, that is, except Eugene Levy (who always plays this character, no matter the movie) and Hilary Duff (who has abandoned all trace of her former cuteness for a feeble skinny-Lindsay imitation).
Adam Shankman’s poorly structured, unevenly paced, uninspired movie is set in summertime, which means a couple of things: one, its release is off season and two, college football coach Tom is off work. The first is left unexplained. The second occasions Tom’s competition with the unspeakably annoying Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), as the childhood rivals end up at the same lakeside campground. Self-conscious nerd Jimmy lords it over Tom that he’s rich (his summer home is a veritable mansion, outfitted with every possible iota of electronic excess and brightly colored sports gear, and a dining set from the King of Thailand) as well as married to trophy wife number three, Sarina (Carmen Electra, who earns points for understanding her limits and her strengths, and exploiting all completely).
For his part, Tom rents a rundown cabin inhabited by a large, digitized rat who steals everything from keys to t-shirts. Tom isn’t much troubled by such details though, as he’s determined to ignore everything except his own selfish aims. Where did the vaguely sweet, bungling dad of the first film go? Now he’s just manic and inept, unable even to hear his sensible, longsuffering wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt). This time out, as opposed to 2003, when she at least had a writing career and existence beyond Tom’s purview, Kate just looks strained. She spends most of her on-screen time rolling her eyes at his frankly awesome immaturity.
Because the movie must include at least nominal references to the dozen children implied (implicated?) in its title and already tediously celebrated in the first installment of this remake franchise, the kids do show up at Lake Winnetka. Tom and Kate bring their rowdy 12 and Jimmy assembles another crew, perfectly uniformed, well-behaved, and ready to claim victory in any contest against the Baker kids, though also resentful of his bullying in ways that only the keenly attentive Sarina (more points for Electra) seems able to recognize.
While the dads arrange for any number of impromptu challenges (campfire singing, waterskiing, volley ball, tennis), the children do their best to fill out their underwritten characters. Most remain bunched together: the “twin boys,” or the “little girls” (one of whom articulates an apt reaction to the film when she says of a clamless clambake, “Sometimes I feel like a stranger on this planet”). Equally nonplussed is Nora (Piper Perabo), apparently abandoned by former beau Hank (Ashton Kutcher, who clearly has better, more lucrative, less painful things to do now) and so, hitched up with good-looking dullard Bud (Jonathan Bennett). Enormously pregnant, Nora agrees to go along for the summer vacation despite her expressed desire to move on and away from her Chicago-based family (hubby has a job in Houston), in order to allow a predictable bonding moment over the baby’s ill-timed birth.
At the same time, Charlie’s growing interest in Murtaugh’s daughter, the smart, beautiful, tattooed, and bikinied Anne (Jaime King), leads to their joint declaration of moving away from their parents. Also on her way out of the franchise, Duff’s Lorraine is planning on an internship with Allure magazine in New York and mad at dad because he’s pooh-poohing that idea. So she spends her Winnetka days lolling in lounge chairs, pretending not to like anyone, and checking her unbelievably terrible fashion choices in any available mirror. She also helps kid sister Sarah (Alyson Stoner) apply appropriate makeup for her first date (this after Sarah is caught trying to steal makeup from a tourist shop), who reprises the first film’s trick, whereby raw meat entices a dog to cause mayhem, upsetting the Murtaughs and embarrassing her parents — this even though dad asks her to provide said disruption).
Sarah’s movie date with Murtaugh’s son Eliot (Taylor Lautner) leads to still more embarrassment, this time more explicitly Tom’s responsibility. He and Jimmy discover one another hiding out in the movie theater balcony, each spying on his child’s first night out. This seemingly mutual concern turns into another competition, briefly stalled when Tom feels compelled to show Jimmy the move where you yawn-n-stretch to put your arm around your date. No surprise, they’re mistaken for a gay couple by phobic fellow theatergoers (“Disgusting!”), leading to yet another spastic-dad joke. Dangling from the balcony during the ensuing mini-melee, Tom horrifies Sarah and demonstrates once again that he’s a sensationally incompetent parent. It’s no wonder that his kids are all outgrowing him.