It would be nice to think that every critic walks into each new movie with a completely open mind. It would also be a total lie. I’ll admit it: I had pretty low expectations for the Mark Wahlberg-Rose Byrne adoption dramedy Instant Family. And the trailer didn’t exactly boost my confidence, what with its hard-sell barrage of low slapstick and sappy schmaltz. But now it’s time to admit something else: I couldn’t have had it more wrong. It’s a surprisingly winning movie, packed with just the right combination of laughs and sniffles. Damn you, Wahlberg!
Directed and co-written by Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), and inspired by his and his wife’s own adoption story, Instant Family is the sort of heartwarming family movie that seems tailor-made for the holiday season – that time of year when we tend to find ourselves around a table with the people we love and who love us regardless of whether we’re tied by blood.
Wahlberg comedies, in general, can be a bit of a dicey proposition. As an actor he has a tendency to just widen his eyes like an excited, tail-wagging puppy, dial up his energy level to 11, and run his mouth at 45 RPM speed as a way to telegraph to the audience that he’s in funny mode. He does all of that here. But it helps enormously that he’s also assisted by Rose Byrne, who’s become something of a stealth comic assassin lately in movies like Spy, Neighbors, and even Peter Rabbit.
Together, they play Pete and Ellie – a happily married couple who flip houses together and still seem to be in that sexy honeymoon phase of their marriage even though they’re beginning to feel like something is missing: Kids. They’ve just been too busy to plan a family. And when they finally do get around to talking about it, Wahlberg says that he’s worried about being one of those old dads who has a heart attack while tossing a football with his son. He jokes that maybe they should adopt a five-year-old and that way it will be like they got started five years earlier. Except Ellie doesn’t take it as a joke. Soon, she’s scrolling through web pages of foster kid profiles in tears. Soon, he is too.
Despite its silly overall tone, the film gets into some of the real practical nuts and bolts of adopting kids out of the foster-care system – mostly in a series of funny classes for prospective parents taught by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro (tandem deadpan gold). Eventually, Pete and Ellie find themselves adopting three siblings: the pint-sized terror Lita (Julianna Gamiz), the meek and klutzy middle-child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the moody teenage hellion Lizzy (Isabela Moner). Needless to say, it’s not a smooth-sailing episode of The Brady Bunch or Diff’rent Strokes.
The main attraction here is watching Wahlberg and Byrne getting their butts handed to them by these three kids as their regret and resentment gets ratcheted up to the comic breaking point, saying all of the taboo things parents think but never say out loud. And Anders smartly recruits a few supporting-actor pros (Julie Hagerty, Margo Martindale, Michael O’Keefe, Joan Cusack) to drop in just when the movie inches up to the brink of getting either too madcap or too sappy. At its heart (and it’s a big corny heart, for sure), the film’s message is one of unconditional love and embracing family wherever you find it. It’s hard to argue with. Especially when it’s served up with such spiky laughter-through-tears sweetness. B