By Joe Hammerschmidt
How often does a comedy come along that doesn’t give zero yahoos and aims to have a little bit of fun, while telling a uniquely personal story? The answer: not that often, at least with major studio films. And yet, the beauty of seeing such a daunting concept playing out under the guise of an incredibly high caliber of talent, for just one moment, takes it far above mere novelty. For once, it’s insanely legit, and nothing short of purely heartwarming. What writer/director Sean Anders and creative partner John Morris have attempted is what some may consider a true cinematic miracle, as nobody, myself included, could possibly have expected a story about the struggles of adoption to cause me to crack up so bleeding much. It’s downright impossible, and yet Instant Family as that movie miracle we could use amid all the stauncher award season fare still to come.
Inspired affectionately from Anders’ own life experiences, and more surprisingly that of its top-billed star, the standard blended family comedy takes a mild swirl for the astonishingly improved, primarily via Mark Wahlberg instilling his deep “papa bear” instincts. He played Pete, a successful house flipper and renovator, quite comfortable in his ways, and uneager to make a drastic change. That is until wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) guilt trips him (successfully, I may add) into pursuing the training and qualifications necessary for adopting foster kids out of the system. Much of the dramatic tension Anders and Morris insist on is with their constant back and forth, the ill-favored threat of uncertainty looming over whether what they’re accomplishing is anywhere close to “a good idea.” Their over-lapping, yet doting instructors Karen and Sharon (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro), they wouldn’t be doing their job properly if they weren’t the type to assure all the parents in the program whether they’re on the right track.
Through a spontaneous picnic-like setting, Pete and Ellie are introduced to cocky firebrand Lizzy (Isabela Moner), 16 years old with a lot to say, and plenty to protect from her younger sibs, clumsy middle kid Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the younger, rather impatient Lita (Julianna Gamiz). With Lizzy, the potential parents must take all three, and with that a litany of chaotic moments, slapstick family comedy pieces, and for good measure, critical real-world drama in the form of a likely gut-punching reunion with the kids’ recovering addict mother.
Not more than two weeks have passed since my initial viewing of Instant Family, and I’m still very blown away. There was no way it deserved to work as well as it did. For starters, this is a sharp departure for Anders and Morris, whose career benchmarks have landed between ill-fated raunch-fests (Sex Drive, That’s My Boy) and flatlining four-quadrant fare (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, last year’s Daddy’s Home 2). None of their prior films exactly scream “classic comedy contender”, but Instant feels very different, a welcome departure, via Anders’ bravery to tell a personal story with a real heartbeat behind it, while maintaining some of their normal smutty parameters. I do expect it to be a fluke that would still help heighten the pair’s street cred with more diverse projects, but it certainly proves what solid comedy writers can do with the right material, and especially with the right cast.
In terms of the material, it’s impossible to deny just how heartwarmingly funny it really is. Laughs coming from the heart, humor that leaves a giant smile on the face. That did me in by the end, walking from one theater to the next that day, a big, goofy smile, that refused to dissipate. Some may say the plot is almost reminiscent of the more self-aware Lifetime movies that are unafraid to poke a little fun into their gooey center, and they’ll likely be right. Others will point out that its schmaltz may dip over the deep end, and they’ll also be correct. It’s a little silly at times, a bit schmaltzy, and Anders doesn’t always take it seriously until it’s crucial to do so, something I gratefully commend, in terms of overall variety. That is often exactly what audiences will gobble up at this time of year; the difference here being, it’s well warranted, if not above that. Purely legitimate, and brutally honest with how it tickles the heartstrings, slaps them even. At the same time, I had to ask myself by the end, what is wrong with a little schmaltz? This is easily the kind of film that almost every member of the family should make time for, preferably doubled up with either of the two major animated feature openings for a fair contrast. I’d likely urge parents, however, to leave the younger kids behind, as there are a few sexual references typical to have been influenced by a disobedient teen who doesn’t know better, without giving too much away.
Its strong lead cast does take those warm fuzzies up to the next level, without a single moment’s hesitation. Miss Moner, the former Nickelodeon star last seen fearing for her safety in Sicario 2, is here portraying the steadfast grown-up sister we either hope for or dread, equal parts sassy, rebellious, and doting. A teenager with a few attitude and control issues but is otherwise there to keep her sibs in line, often teaching Pete and Ellie a few lessons. For me, that’s an MVP-quality performance who may not have earned award voters’ attention but is certainly making the right moves toward a high enough point.
As for Wahlberg and Byrne, they are one committed couple, bouncing off each other’s energy, for good or worse, with a sharp edge for adding to, and completing a scene, making it whole. Romantically, they’re a bit strained, a bit stressed, but they know they still love each other, as equally as toward their new kids. In the shared role of “parent”, it’s accurately uneven, imbalanced, but all in the manner of learning at every step. It’s brand new territory, their lives forever changed, most definitely for the better. Captivating leads, mileage may vary, but I found them fruitful, and valuable. Keep an eye open for Pete’s jovial Grandma Sandy (Margo Martindale), who simply steals the show when dovetailing a conflict for who’s got the more realistic parenting strategy.
Simply put, I could sing the praises of Instant Family all day long, and likely not dig in deep enough for what it means for family comedies, that they can be more than a poster, or a trailer will say on the surface. Keeping in mind its notable story flaws that may not work as well for some people as they did for others, Anders and Morris bravely brush the typical quirks aside, and just aim to have a fun time going beyond the typical studio comedy aimed toward all four quadrants and conveniently opening around the most family-centric holiday of the year. I was impressed, nay floored, by its poignancy, the truth it spoke, and the rambunctiously varied sense of humor it shared, that may or may not speak to so many. Whether or not you leave the theater with a big smile, and even a tear or two being shed, its truthfulness cannot be ignored. Should it spark a conversation at the dinner table next week over the real bravery to adopt, to become a forever family for kids deserving of a lot more love, then it will have easily succeeded. (B+)
Instant Family opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language, and some drug references; 118 minutes.