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Film Review – Instant Family (2018)

Instant Family

With the holiday season upon us, studios take it upon themselves to lift our spirits, to release family-friendly entertainment that espouses good tidings with a heartwarming feel. Director Sean Anders had similar ideas with his latest family comedy Instant Family, the story of a married couple choosing to adopt three children. And though there were a few cringe-worthy moments, it has the best of intentions.

The following review will be spoiler free.

Synopsis

Directed By: Sean Anders

Written By: Sean Anders and John Morris

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Tom Segura, and Margo Martindale

Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) are happily married, running a house flipping business together that is quite successful. But they feel something missing from their lives, something that would fill a void and get them out of their routine. After a quick consultation, the couple decides that they should adopt a child, hoping that a new situation as parents will allow them to grow as individuals.

At an adult-child fair organized by the adoption center, Pete and Ellie meet Lizzy (Moner), a spunky, take-no-BS girl, who makes quite the first impression. However, as the couple learns, Lizzy comes with two younger siblings, Juan (Quiroz) and Lita (Gamiz). What was supposed to be a family of three quickly turns into a family of five…Pete and Ellie are way over their heads.

Sean Anders is Turning Over a New Leaf

I haven’t been a huge fan of director Sean Anders’ work so far. His career high points have included Sex Drive and Horrible Bosses 2 which aren’t exactly the most impressive directing efforts by most standards (although I will defend Sex Drive for its absurdities). After directing Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2, something needed to change for Anders.

The common direction for screenwriters that are starting out in the industry is to “write about what you know.” It’s fairly intuitive: writing about a passionate subject will make up for many shortcomings that the writer may have. Injecting a bit of love and compassion into a story can go a long way!

Anders followed that advice with Instant Family which is a fictionalization of his wife and his handling the adoption of three foster children of their own. The director has even gone to great lengths to spread awareness for adoption, hoping that the lives of others can be positively affected like his own.

Maybe Instant Family is the start of something new for Anders. (I sure hope so — I can’t sit through another Daddy’s Home film.)

instant family

image via Life With Heidi

Instant Family is Undeniably Charming

Instant Family has a very sweet center, using comedy to tackle adoption earnestly. I would characterize Instant Family as a dramedy, but with a major emphasis on the comedy. Building off of his own experiences, Sean Anders was smart to use this specific balance of light and deep elements. Adoption isn’t the easiest topic for many people (especially prospective parents) to discuss. There’s a lot of awkwardness to it all; no one quite knows how to react…or at least how do it with confidence. Tackling these moments with comedy allows for everyone to get involved. It’s relatable AND approachable to everyone. No one is singled out, no one is way outside of their comfort zone.

Sean Anders has said as such in interviews leading up to the release of Instant Family. While I certainly wouldn’t call this film “great” or a “landmark achievement in film,” most great comedies start by adding a comedic twist on a non-comedic situation. By its construction Instant Family wants everyone to come to the table, to hear about this issue and have a fairly honest conversation about it. You want to be around these characters and go through their journeys with them. That’s all you need!

instant family

All smiles! Well, I guess 1/2 isn’t bad. Image via The Anniston Star

A Perfect Use of Marky Mark

As far as I’m concerned there’s only two kinds of Mark Wahlberg characters: one who has short hair and one who has long hair. That’s not to say that he isn’t a capable presence — he’s actually a pretty strong actor in my opinion — but doesn’t exactly have a lot of acting range. He’s at his best when his character is a varied version of himself with a few reconfigurations. Wahlberg struggles in films when he tries to transform into a character that is very different from who he is — cough Mile 22  cough. He’s more of a force of nature than a thespian, meaning he’s best when he works with a screenwriter and a director that uses his strengths effectively.

After working with him on a few films already, Sean Anders understands Wahlberg, placing him in the perfect scenarios for his charm and casual, fast-talking wit to shine. It’s actually quite humorous at times seeing Wahlberg in athleisure, looking like he just ran on set from getting dressed following a shower after a long, strenuous upper body workout. It’s not lazy costume design like some may think, however. Wahlberg is a straightforward suburban dad in Instant Family. Wearing athleisure while working on his house flipping business is about as suburban as you can get. It makes for a relaxed Wahlberg, one that easily riffs off of Rose Byrne to create a wonderful parental dynamic. He’s doing more acting in Instant Family than thinking and he’s able to flow quite naturally through each scene.

instant family

“I’M VERY UPSET!” – Marky Mark (probably). Image via Game Spot

Instant Family Doesn’t Want to Answer all the Questions it Raises

Yet Instant Family is so conscience about sticking to its own crowd-pleasing formula that it never fully works. I can break this down by looking at a sports-related joke from the film.

In a fittingly awkward scene where Mark Wahlberg’s character tries to bond with Gustavo Quiroz’s Juan, the two have a fun bit of banter back and forth about whether or not they should pretend to be the Lakers or the Clippers as they play basketball in the backyard. Juan notes that he’s a Clippers fan whereas Wahlberg’s Pete is a Lakers fan (which might be a form of sacrilege consider his deep Boston roots).

In an effort to be kind to Juan, Pete says that they can be the Clippers and quickly tosses up shot which clangs hard off the rim and smacks Juan in the face, causing him to get a nose bleed. Juan, a sensitive young boy, claims through a fit of tears that Pete meant to hit him because of Pete’s Lakers fandom. As a prospective parent, Pete tries desperately to fan the flames, noting that he thinks the Clippers were so smart to trade away star Blake Griffin, quickly following up with an off-hand comment calling Griffin their best player, signaling that Pete doesn’t believe that trading the all-star was very intelligent.

Except this is the populist way to look at this trade in a comedic setting. Most casual basketball fans know who Blake Griffin is, so having that comment thrown in by Wahlberg would be very funny to many people. However, like the film as a whole, there was far more to this scenario than meets the eye. When you look at the specifics, the trade was smart for the Clippers as they offloaded an aging superstar with a serious injury history who was eating up a serious amount of the team’s salary cap and effectively destroying the Clippers’ flexibility as a franchise to move beyond the “Lob City” era of Clippers basketball that included a core of Griffin along with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan and sign big free agents to start another successful era of basketball.

In return for Griffin, the Clippers received an extra first round pick which they used on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a promising point guard that will most likely lead the team into the future. Not to mention that they also received proven veterans such as Tobias Harris and Lou Williams in the deal along with a few other solid players that improved their roster depth and will allow the team to have better salary cap flexibility to go after big-time free agents this coming summer since all of these players are on short-term contracts. Players such as Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have already been linked to sign with the Clippers the coming offseason. Even better, the Clippers have one of the best records in the Western conference without Blake Griffin!

But for the sake of Instant Family, they played it safe, sticking to the big name in this entire trade without mulling over all the facts. Essentially, the movie oversimplified the trade for the moment in the film.

instant family

image via The Washington Times

What I Really Mean…

So if you just became completely lost in that nerdy deep-dive of an NBA transaction, allow me to do some simplifying of my own: Instant Family watered down its own issues in an attempt to try to remain palatable for a wide audience.

The idea of the “white savior complex” is thrown around as these two white adults adopt three Latino children, and yet — almost out of some internal lack of confidence — the film will casually toss this piece of the puzzle into the discussion for quick jokes without ever fully handling it. There are even a few moments of cringe-inducing attempts at humor that go for easy laughs when the scene should have had more confidence to relax and have a real discussion about what was taking place. We don’t even get a strong sense of the strife between Wahlberg and Byrne’s characters when things begin to go south with the foster children. Instant Family smoothed out all its edges. The most it can really do is make you smile; it won’t change your perspective on adoption like it clearly wants to.

There’s more darkness to the scenarios in Instant Family than it wants to have, so it disregards these pieces altogether. I admire its ability to have a sweet, approachable conversation, but in doing so in the manner in which it did leaves Instant Family with a lack of depth.

Final Thoughts

Instant Family is desperately trying to appeal to mass audiences with its excessive cheese and soft nature. However, it is also pretty effective at what it tries to do.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are wonderful as the two leads, expressing the fears and shortcomings of the typical family — even if a union that combines the overly muscular Wahlberg and always beautiful Byrne would be anything but normal in real life. You care for these two as learn to become quality parents in a less-than-ideal situation with three foster children.

For all the lackluster directorial efforts in Anders’ career so far, Instant Family is a sign that he is looking to improve and right his wrongs.

Grade: B

instant family

One big happy family! Image via IndieWire


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Nick Kush

A current young professional, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 in order to provide insightful film analysis that is meant to educate and entertain. Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society. You can follow Nick at the official MovieBabble Twitter account @MovieBabble_

5 Responses

  1. I wondered about this one. I actually adopted my son through the foster system back in 2012, so it’s good to see a film about this, but it looks too sugary sweet for me. Thanks for reviewing!

  2. I wanted to see this film, but I think there are a bit too many “s-words” in it for me.

  3. Nick Kush says:

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