Instant Family is feel-good entertainment that has a big heart, plenty of laughs, and raises awareness about serious subject matter.
After working together on the two Daddy's Home movies, director Sean Anders and star Mark Wahlberg reunite for the new comedy Instant Family, which looks to shine a spotlight on foster parenting and adoption. The duo's previous endeavors became solid box office hits, though were hardly critical darlings, which may lead some to believe their third collaboration would be more of the same in that regard. This film certainly boasts many of the traditional studio comedy hallmarks, but it's also one of the holiday season's biggest surprises. Instant Family is feel-good entertainment that has a big heart, plenty of laughs, and raises awareness about serious subject matter.
Married couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) planned to have children earlier in their lives, but various responsibilities, such as developing their home renovation business, prevented them from moving forward. Now, as they approach middle age, they fear that perhaps their window has passed and they'll never become parents. After Pete makes an offhanded comment about adopting a five-year old (to make up for the lost time), Ellie decides to look into adoption and is heartbroken by the sheer number of foster children in need of a family.
Pete and Ellie decide to sign up for foster licensing classes and then attend an adoption fair to find a child. There, they meet strong-willed teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), who leaves an impression on them. When making plans to adopt Lizzy, Pete and Ellie learn she comes with two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz), drastically altering what they initially had in mind. Deciding to forge ahead, Pete and Ellie welcome the three kids to their home in the hopes they can make it work and become a functional family.
Though Instant Family is an original story, it is partially inspired by Anders' own experiences with foster care and adoption. This gives the screenplay (which Anders co-wrote with John Morris) a sense of authenticity and helps the film's overall message feel genuine - even as some of the comedic hijinks reach heightened levels. In sections, Instant Family may come across as a pro-adoption PSA (revealing some upsetting truths about the foster system and the children in it), but Anders deserves credit for keeping a steady hand on the narrative and never getting too preachy with a perceived agenda. Whether the film encourages one to look into foster care or not, it still works simply as a tale of love that stands on its own merits.
Wahlberg and Byrne are a nice entry point for the audience, portraying a relatable and endearing onscreen couple. Through their chemistry and interactions, it's easy to buy them as a longtime married pair going through all of the stress that comes with a tremendous life-altering decision. The veteran actors are able to deftly handle the comedic and dramatic beats required of them, and they're complemented immensely by Moner. Lizzy has the outward appearance of your stereotypical rebellious movie teen, but the script gives the young actress some layers to explore, and she demonstrates a fair amount of range. Moner plays off of Wahlberg and Byrne quite well, with scenes that should ring true to any parent or teen in the audience. The dynamic between those three serves as the emotional foundation for Instant Family, building to an affecting climax.
In terms of the supporting cast, Juan and Lita aren't fleshed out as much as their older sibling, but Quiroz and Gamiz nevertheless are a cute presence and responsible for their fair share of laughs as their characters attempt to adjust to their new surroundings. The younger kids are rarely annoying (which is a risk when giving child actors substantial roles) and are capable of stealing some scenes. Elsewhere, Anders creates a humorous hodgepodge of fellow foster parents Pete and Ellie see at their support group meetings, giving each pair a specific trait that makes them stand out during those brief sequences. Some viewers may see them as one-note, but Anders is likely drawing from his history here, so they're still relatively grounded. Foster scenes are also elevated by the duo of Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as Karen and Sharon, two social workers who try to guide the overwhelmed parents through the process.
The film's biggest shortcoming is that at about two hours, it does run a little long. At times, the script falls into a repetitive pattern of arguments followed by family bonding experiences, followed by another argument that essentially renders the last breakthrough moot. To be fair, the movie never drags, especially since Anders employs a bouncy soundtrack over the sequences of Pete and Ellie with the kids. However, savvy viewers will be able to predict the trajectory of the story, so Instant Family is somewhat guilty of prolonging the inevitable to manufacture drama. In a way, this approach may reflect the project's influences (highlighting the ups and downs of real life), but within the context of a narrative film, it can be a little episodic instead of feeling like a natural progression.
Instant Family is definitely a step up for Anders and Wahlberg and will be a fun one for comedy fans to check out over Thanksgiving. It may not be perfect or reinvent the wheel, but it's still an effective and touching movie with strong performances that'll leave viewers on a high note. With the sheer number of high-profile offerings opening at the end of the month, Instant Family may get lost in the shuffle, but those looking for a laugh would be encouraged to see it in theaters.
Instant Family is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 119 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references.
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- Instant Family (2018) release date: Nov 16, 2018