'Instant Family': Film Review

Broad but big-hearted.
11/16/2018

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star as a couple who adopt three foster children in Sean Anders' autobiographical dramedy.

Sloppy but sincere, exasperating but endearing, Instant Family is the cinematic equivalent of a puppy licking your face: Resistance may be futile, even if you’re left wincing at the residual goo on your cheek.

A sitcom-ish gloss on writer-director-producer Sean Anders’ own experience adopting foster children with his wife, the movie, starring an appealingly matched Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, is an unwieldy hodgepodge of the jokey and the maudlin. It’s clumsy and corny, studded with lines that don’t land and gags that never get off the ground. It also features probably the most bizarre Joan Cusack cameo in screen history.

In other words, like nearly every studio comedy that tumbles off the assembly line these days, Instant Family has conspicuous defects. But unlike the majority of them, the film’s not a total fake. It’s genial and spirited and — unsurprisingly, given its genesis — has at least a basic feel for life as it’s lived, full of stings and surprises.   

That’s not to say the pic is sharp or nuanced, or makes a valiant attempt to untangle the questions of race, class and privilege inevitably knotted into a narrative about the American foster care system. (Instant Family raises those questions, then briskly brushes them aside.) Anders wrote and directed Daddy’s Home and its sequel, as well as Horrible Bosses 2; you don’t go to his movies in search of sophistication any more than you look to a Michael Haneke film for a pick-me-up.

Part of what makes Instant Family an improvement on Anders’ previous efforts is the ambition detectible in its scope and (admittedly awkward) jumble of tones. Anders is clearly aiming higher here than the hardy-har-har gay-panic humor and witless physical clowning that poisoned his other projects. At times, you can sense the film reaching for the texture and idiosyncrasy of a Judd Apatow comedy, or the shaggy humanism of James L. Brooks.

It would be a stretch to say it gets there. Anders smooths his story’s edges, delivering a broad, resolutely nice mainstream entertainment. Though there are setbacks and tears aplenty in this tale of a couple who welcome the three children of a drug-addicted mother into their home, little is insurmountable or unresolvable; the movie is, above all, a chronicle of good intentions and heartening outcomes. Still, in the current landscape of lazy, cynical commercial comedies, effort and warmth count for something — and on its own crowd-pleasing terms, Instant Family works.

Wahlberg and Byrne play Pete and Ellie, married professional house flippers in Atlanta. Triggered by a comment made by the husband (Tom Segura) of Ellie’s baby-crazy sister (Allyn Rachel) — “They’re obviously never having kids” — the couple, who indeed have been putting off “the conversation,” decide to consider foster care adoption. It only takes one look at a website teeming with photos of adorable kids in need to transform the protagonists into breathless parents in waiting.

Pete and Ellie start attending meetings with a diverse group of prospective foster moms and dads. (The strangest is a tightly wound blonde dead set on adopting a black teen and molding him into a Division I athlete; like much of Instant Family, the character is both kinda-sorta amusing and uncomfortable — which, I suppose, is to be expected for a film that tries to mine serious institutional and individual problems for laughs.) The fact that the social workers who oversee the meetings are played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro is a plus, even if their odd-couple act never quite jells.

Pete and Ellie’s process moves forward at an “adoption fair” — Anders gets a giggle from the sight of adults literally elbowing each other out of the way en route to the cutest tykes — where they connect with three siblings whose mother’s substance abuse has left them in and out of various homes and courts. Before long, 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her little brother and sister, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz), are moving in with Pete and Ellie.

The younger kids each have a defining “problematic” trait: Cute-as-a-button Lita is prone to furious meltdowns over things like being told she can’t eat chips for dinner, while fragile, klutzy Juan collapses into tears at the slightest mishap. Pretty, self-possessed Lizzy is comparatively complex: wary and watchful, but charming when she wants to be, and more than a bit rebellious.

As a film that aspires to educate as well as entertain, Instant Family inevitably slips into didacticism as it takes us through the stages of Pete and Ellie’s journey. The two fret over whether they’re “special” enough people to foster, and worry about being perceived as white saviors. They revel in the “honeymoon period,” when the kids first arrive and are on their best behavior, and guiltily confess regrets when the reality of caring for three troubled children sets in (“Maybe we can just put them back,” Rose suggests).

But Anders and co-screenwriter John Morris invest even these illustrative, pamphlet-like scenes with a serviceable screwball breeziness. Elsewhere, the film moves amiably through its to-do list, with fights and heart-to-hearts, one harrowing visit to the ER and a Christmas dinner that devolves, via strenuous slapstick, into disaster.

The humor is hit-or-miss, but Wahlberg and Byrne work off each other like pros, even if the screenplay confines their characters in disappointingly retro, gendered ways: He’s a hunky, likable lunkhead; she’s more uptight and frequently exasperated. Luckily, Byrne excels at playing emotional whiplash — Ellie swings between despondency and elation based on how much affection the kids show her — and it’s fun watching her trying to hold it together.

Former Nickelodeon star Moner (recently seen in Sicario: Day of the Soldado) is a radiant, polished presence — perhaps a bit too radiant and polished for someone who’s supposed to be shouldering so much trauma. Of the three children, Lizzy is the one not drawn directly from Anders’ experience, and you can feel the movie struggling to find an authentic way into the character. A subplot about her sexting with the school janitor is especially cringeworthy, a maladroit mix of cautionary and comic. More persuasive is Lizzy’s tense, verging-on-toxic relationship with Ellie, even if their inevitable rapprochement registers as obligatory rather than earned.  

In its effort to present sometimes unsettling subject matter in a pleasingly sunny, silly package, Instant Family gets an invaluable assist from Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale as Ellie and Pete’s respective, and respectively sweet and salty, moms. (Hagerty attempting to pronounce her Js in a Spanish accent is the #whitepeople comic bit you didn’t know you needed.) And while the film commits errors of taste and tact, and is generally all over the place from start to finish, those issues come off here as by-products of a certain generosity — a sense that Anders wants to convey a full range of experience, including the messy stuff in between the usual formulaic notes and beats.

Even if Instant Family isn’t your thing, stick around for the closing credits — a fitting feel-good flourish for a movie whose many shortcomings you may find yourself willing to forgive.

Production companies: Closest to the Hole, Leverage Entertainment, Two Grown Men
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Michael O’Keefe, Octavia Spencer, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Tom Segura, Iliza Shlesinger

Director: Sean Anders
Screenwriters: Sean Anders, John Morris
Producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Sean Anders, John Morris, Marc Evans
Executive producer: Helen Pollak
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Clayton Harley
Costume designer: Lisa N. Lovaas
Editor: Brad Wilhite

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes