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Sequel is a cheaper imitation

Noisy, silly, gratingly upbeat, and piously sentimental, ''Cheaper by the Dozen 2" is what passes for wholesome family entertainment these days. It's the sort of movie to send small children and grandparents out of the theater hugging each other and strong men in search of bourbon.

Any resemblance to the original 1948 bestseller ''Cheaper by the Dozen" and the ensuing 1950 movie has long been obliterated by the needs of the marketplace: The DVD player in your den is hungry, and this movie means to feed it. So we get more of what made 2003's ''Cheaper" remake an across-the-board hit: Steve Martin with his frontal lobes removed as football coach Tom Baker, Bonnie Hunt as his loving, no-nonsense wife Kate, and a sprawling brood of kids with varying degrees of attitude.

They're beginning to grow up and pull away, though, a natural process that fills Tom with panic. Oldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo) and her husband (Jonathan Bennett) are expecting their first child, while son Charlie (Tom Welling) yearns to strike out on his own and graduating daughter Lorraine (Hilary Duff) is off to New York for a magazine internship.

In a last-ditch effort to keep the clan together, Tom rents the Wisconsin lakefront cabin at which the family once spent their summers. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be: The place is a dump, the local pack rat is more brazen than ever, and Tom's high school rival now lives across the lake with his eight children in a McMansion the size of a retirement complex.

Said rival, Jimmy Murtaugh, is played by Eugene Levy as a gloating nudnick whose tan appears to have been applied with a putty knife. Jimmy's on his third wife (Carmen Electra; the script can't decide whether she's a sensitive soul or a jiggly bimbo) and he's a taskmaster with his kids, making them spend two hours a day reading and writing.

One of Tom's brood dismisses this as ''lame," but it doesn't sound that terrible to me -- it's a lot closer, ironically, to how efficiency expert Frank Bunker Gilbreth treated his children in the original ''Cheaper by the Dozen." Kate delivers the movie's countervailing philosophy when she tells her husband, ''We give our kids love and guidance. What else is there?" Those who might offer suggestions -- ''culture," ''individual attention," ''tax-free municipal bonds" -- are obviously subversives.

Still, ''Cheaper" rolls along on well-greased wheels. The burden of the plot's little dramas falls on the younger kids, in particular Alyson Stoner as tomboy tweener Sarah. Conceiving a crush on daredevil Eliot Murtaugh (Taylor Lautner from ''The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D"), Sarah gets mopey and starts fiddling with make-up. Mom tells her ''when you like a boy, don't be anything but yourself," but then the family offers her up on a first date with a full makeover, another of the movie's weird mixed messages. Elsewhere, there's a rote romance between Charlie and the oldest Murtaugh girl (Jaime King), while Duff just looks like she'd rather be in a different movie -- she's angry and haggard here, not at all pleasant company.

The burden of slapstick falls on Martin, of course, and those of us who treasure the goofball intellectual wit of the comedian's early career may watch in dismay as Tom takes water-ski pratfalls and suffers random crotch injuries, never ceasing to grin a well-paid, defanged grin.

Your kids will laugh -- hell, my kids will laugh -- but speaking as a father, I have to say Tom Baker is one idiot patriarch too many. We're saddled with the cliche dumb daddy in ads, TV sitcoms, comic strips, but a neutered Steve Martin is the last straw. I therefore announce the founding of a new anti-defamation organization, Fathers United against Dopey Dads -- or F.U.D.D. -- and call for volunteers and greater media awareness of this slanderous stereotype. A dad is a terrible thing to waste, and ''Cheaper by the Dozen 2" is one vast, cheery wasteland.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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