Grade: C

In “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” the sequel to the 2003 updating of the 1950 Clifton Webb movie about a family with twelve children, the big Baker clan goes for a vacation at a Wisconsin lake, and we get drowned in a sea of slapstick and schmaltz. The picture isn’t particularly good, but it’s fortunate in a couple of ways. First, it’s actually an improvement on its predecessor, which was a surprise Christmas hit two years ago–admittedly, not a great difficulty, considering how terrible that frantic farce was; but by comparison this relatively genial, mild-mannered follow-up is far less irritating.

Second, it follows another big-brood comedy, “Yours, Mine and Ours,” by only a few weeks–and seems a masterpiece of restraint beside that loud, abrasive monstrosity (which, oddly enough, though itself a remake of a 1968 flick, actually borrowed from the 1950 “Dozen” in its characterization of a dad who tried to rule his small army of kids as efficiently as possible). And third, it has an attractive cast. So while this movie isn’t really recommendable, the timing, and its less obnoxious attitude, make it appear better than it actually is.

The premise has Tom and Kate Baker (Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt)–still apparently residing in the big Chicago house into which they moved from downstate when Tom took a college coaching job in the city in the first installment, although he quit that gig at the close of the picture (it’s never made clear what he’s doing now)–deciding to take their family on a Labor Day outing to Lake Winetka in Wisconsin, where they always used to frolic as a family. Their oldest, you see, are leaving the nest–pregnant daughter Nora (Piper Perabo) and her husband Bud (played by Jonathan Bennett, Nora presumably having dumped the dim-bulb boyfriend played in the first movie by Ashton Kutcher) are planning a move to Houston, son Charlie (Tom Welling) is at the University of Chicago and working in a garage, and daughter Lorraine (Hilary Duff), just graduated from high school, is about to go off to New York for an internship with a magazine. (Isn’t that the same plot device that Duff was involved with in the new version of “The Love Bug”–or was that Lindsay Lohan?)

Anyway, Tom, feeling more than a little dejected, decides that one final bash at Winetka will act as a fitting finale to the old days of a full house, and all the kids agree, though some (like Lorraine) with reluctance. Once in Wisconsin (actually played by Canada, of course), Tom finds that the old house they’ve always rented is now pretty much a dump, and that almost all the property is now owned by his old rival Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy)–apparently the two grew up in the area, though that too is never really explained–whose equally large family always bested the Bakers in competitions held lakeside each year. What follows is the stuff of 1950s sitcoms. Jimmy’s a stern dad who tries to control his kids’ lives while working on his much younger third wife (Carmen Electra), and the more rambunctious Baker brood (along with their dog) cause chaos he finds unacceptable. Meanwhile little tomboy Sarah Baker (Alyson Stoner) has her first kiddie crush on Eliot Murtaugh (Taylor Lautner), who reciprocates, and Charlie hits it off with Jimmy’s eldest daughter Anne (Jaime King), a brainy Yalie, while bespectacled Mark (Forrest Landis) gets into trouble with the more prankish of the Murtaugh boys. The big finale comes when, predictably, the families face off one more time in that Labor Day contest, the competitive drive of the fathers predictably evaporating in the face of an emergency everyone must cooperate to overcome. I won’t tell you what it is, but did I mention that Nora is with child?

What we learn from all this is standard-issue TV pablum. Old competitors must learn to set aside their absurd macho inclinations. Dads have to give their children the freedom to choose their own paths in life. Strictness in parenting can be overemphasized. And trust is an important thing. So are family, friendship and truthfulness. But though there’s nothing here to write home about, it’s mostly inoffensive and not too disagreeable–backhanded compliments, perhaps, but the only ones possible. Martin vacillates between his “Parenthood”/“Father of the Bride” persona and his old wild-and-crazy guy image reasonably well, though at sixty he does strike one as rather long in the tooth for most of the pratfalls he has to take (or seem to–the use of a double in a water-ski sequence is embarrassingly obvious); Levy, on the other hand, pulls off the difficult task of making Murtaugh annoyingly smug without becoming intolerable about it, and his “conversion” at the close is less sappy than one might expect.

Hunt is pleasant enough, and though at first it looks as though Electra is going to have to play a brainless twit as the young Mrs. Murtaugh, she gradually morphs into a bright, likable person–a nice change from the norm in flicks like this. Among the youngsters, Welling shows once more he’s a natural (though he’s curiously absent from a lot of shots–was he off shooting “Smallville” at the same time as filming?), and King matches him well; and Stoner, Lautner and Landis are all quite charming rather than irritating. (In fact, only twins Brent and Shan Kinsman really annoy among the children. So does the family dog, but happily he disappears along the way even more often than Welling.) As for Duff, what’s notable isn’t her performance–which is more than a mite affected–but the fact that she appears to have lost a good deal of weight since “The Perfect Man.” On the other hand, the height of her hair seems to have grown exponentially in the interim. The pacing of the movie, courtesy of director Adam Shankman (taking over from Shawn Levy), is somewhat flabby–even more so than in his last outing along these lines (“The Pacifier”)–but that’s preferable to the manic quality that infected the first movie (and so many others of its ilk); and the picture is decently made, with nice if unexceptional cinematography from Peter James. But as is so often the case in such flicks, John Debney’s score is gratingly obvious.

Parents looking for family-friendly fare during the holidays could do a lot worse than “Cheaper by the Dozen 2.” Of course, they could do substantially better, too.