It’s cliche to say that something will make you laugh and make you cry. Occasionally, however, it’s apt. In the case of “Instant Family,” it’s a pretty literal description. Eager to make you chuckle, yet plotting to bring out tears, this comedy initially seems unlikely to pull it off. Then, as things progress, you get hints of the heart at the center of it all. The third act starts working in the emotion. A climactic sequence in court then brings it all out. It may just catch you by surprise. That’s the movie’s secret weapon. While it’s being an amiable comedy, it’s preparing to get you right in the feels by the end.
Inspired by filmmaker Sean Anders‘ real life experience with adoption, “Instant Family” is a new step for him. This is still very much a comedy, but it is family friendly with a surprisingly strong emotional core. Earnest about the drama, though fairly sarcastic about the comedy, the balancing act works. Anders has made some effective comedies before, but this is the first time he’s revealed how big of a heart he has. It’s a good look for him. Pulling from his actual life pays major dividends.
Ellie (Rose Byrne) and Pete (Mark Wahlberg) are the type of couple who seems to have it all. They fix up and flip houses, keep consistent date nights, and are the envy of other married folk. Internally, though, they feel a void. When Ellie starts perusing an adoption website, it isn’t long before Pete joins in too. They hem and they haw, but eventually go to a seminar where Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) walk them through the process. The other potential adopting/fostering parents are a comedic mess, so Ellie and Pete feel like super candidates. But when given a chance to meet some children, nothing clicks. Then, in a spur of the moment decision, they talk to the teenagers that no one wants and see a potential match in Lizzy (Isabela Moner). To their surprise, however, she’s a package deal.
You see, not only is Lizzy 15 years old, she comes with two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Ellie and Pete aren’t ready for all that, but when their family calls them out, they take the kids almost as a statement of defiance. It goes as expected. An initially delightful honeymoon period transitions into a living hell for all involved.
The would-be parents have the best of intentions, but Lizzy is a teenage girl who still hopes to be reunited with her birth mother. Juan is constantly getting into accidents and bursting into tears, while Lita is an intense little girl. Simply put, Ellie and Pete aren’t equipped for this. As things progress though, they find themselves settling into parenthood. It all comes to a head when the kids might be taken away. That’s where the emotions really come into play.
Rose Byrne is well within her comfort zone here, while Mark Wahlberg gets to be a little kinder and gentler than usual. Neither are particularly challenged, but both really embrace the material head on. Byrne gets more of the emotional high points, which certainly plays to her strengths. Wahlberg seems out of place at times, but a scene where Pete shows Lizzy how to deal with anger is wonderfully handled. The child actors are mostly unremarkable, though Isabela Moner has a promising future ahead of her. Sadly, Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer are completely wasted. Speaking of that, small roles for Joan Cusack and Margo Martindale are underutilized, and that’s being generous. If there’s a supporting stand out, it’s Iliza Shlesinger, playing a prospective parent who’s a spoof of Sandra Bullock from “The Blind Side.” She provides some of the film’s biggest laughs.
Co-writer/director Sean Anders brings a personal perspective to this comedy. Along with co-writer John Morris, he’s desperate to get an emotional reaction from the audience. Luckily, it’s not shameless and craven like “Life Itself,” but the sort of thing that’s ultimately earned. Anders builds up laughs before going for the heartstrings. Plus, the musical cues are undeniably effective, even if they’re rather manipulative. They get a lot of mileage out of sequences where the fostering parents attend a support group. There’s also hints at the raunchier comedy Anders and Morris are better known for. They’ve found a great mix here. Just don’t go in expecting “Hot Tub Time Machine” or “She’s Out of My League.” This is a much different animal. Sometimes they awkwardly transition between the tones, but their hearts are always in the right place.
You can’t be a cynic and like “Instant Family.” It’s too earnest for that. However, if you can get on board with the earnestness, it will move you. Anders deserves credit for not just the selflessness he’s displayed in his personal life, but for finding a way to make this a universally appealing story. As long as you don’t fight too hard against it, “Instant Family” will wear you down. It’s like an awkward puppy. It might bump into things more than you’d like, but it really only wants to be loved.