An appealing cast and family-oriented themes can't rescue Cheaper by the Dozen 2 from its bluntly mercenary tone. A sequel to the 2003 hit (itself a remake of a fondly remembered 1950 adaptation), the new film is built almost entirely around Steve Martin's clueless but basically decent dad. Like everything else in the script, it's a dated, sitcom approach that reveals just how little the filmmakers think of their audience.

Martin plays Tom Baker, a football coach and father of 12 who decides that a vacation at Lake Winnetka, Wisconsin, is just the ticket for holding his fragmenting family together. He and his wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) rent a ramshackle house across from a new mansion owned by Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy), an old rival and himself the father of eight. It's not long before the Baker and Murtaugh children are creating mischief, or before Tom and Jimmy enter into an escalating feud over whose family is better.

From its lofty beginnings as a plea for family togetherness, Cheaper 2 soon boils down to a grudge match between the rich and the super-rich, punctuated by pratfalls and the occasional homily about the evils of shoplifting or of detonating fireworks at the country-club buffet. Levy, a fixture in sub-par comedies like the American Pie franchise, does what he can with a sadly underwritten role, while the brilliant Bonnie Hunt is limited to some muttered asides that turn out to be far funnier than anything else in Sam Harper's script. Playing a tomboy who blossoms into a beautiful teen, little Alyson Stoner delivers the most moving acting in the film.

But Cheaper 2 belongs to Martin, who gives a broad performance that is the polar opposite of his turn in Shopgirl. He attempts to punch up weak material by mugging and shrieking, a sign of either desperation or indifference. The real blame for Cheaper 2 may belong to director Adam Shankman (The Pacifier, Bringing Down the House), who in a telling comment in the press notes said that "in many scenes we moved a group of the kids almost as a single unit-as if they were one actor." Perhaps that's why the kids blur into the background.

Releasing a summer holiday film on the first day of winter is the best indication of how strongly Fox is backing this project.

-Daniel Eagan