WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
What it’s about Pete and Ellie are a happily married couple who decide that it’s finally time to take the plunge and have kids. Opting to adopt rather than give birth, the couple end up fostering three siblings from a broken home: a headstrong teenager, a hyper-sensitive pre-teen and a lively but tantrum-prone pre-schooler. As kids and foster parents learn to come to terms with one another, the children’s birth mother returns to make an already complicated situation even more difficult.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Instant Family’s flaws are pretty much exactly what you might expect them to be based on the premise. It’s a family drama that is predictable, somewhat clichéd and sentimental bordering on mawkish. At nearly two-hours long, it’s also much longer than such a film should be.
What is perhaps less expected, though, is just how much the film actually works; how tender and sweet it can be on the one hand and genuinely funny on the other. And that is not something you can say about the vast majority of dramatic comedies out there.
Frankly, considering that is co-written (with his usual partner in crime, John Morris) and directed by Sean Anders, it’s something of a miracle that Instant Family is as good as it is. Anders has a list of decidedly uninspiring comedies to his name with She’s Out of My League being undoubtedly the high point of his career up until now and with the truly hateful Adam Sandler vehicle, That’s My Boy, his absolute nadir – and, for that matter, one of the true low points in the history of film in general.
With a premise as potentially excruciating as this one, you would expect someone with Anders’ history to live down to it, not to elevate it but, credit where credit’s due, elevate it he certainly did. There is something about the way Instant Family deals with themes of parenting and family that is more nuanced and human than we have seen in his previous family comedies. It also has far more on-point comic beats than most of his past work.
There’s very little of the comedic flabbiness of his weaker sex comedies, Hot Tub Time Machine (great cast, great premise, lazy jokes) or Sex Drive (it’s like Eurotrip but crap) and, needless to say, it has almost nothing in common with comedy catastrophes like Dumb and Dumber To or that Adam Sandler abomination. It ain’t When Harry Met Sally but its balance of humour and heart is nothing to be sneezed at either.
There is an inevitability to the way Pete (Mark Wahlberg; reasonably understated but once again showing himself to be far more at home in comedy than in more serious films) and Ellie (Rose Byrne; fantastic as ever) grow to seeing their foster kids as their own, just as you know that all the kids will finally come around to their new parents, with the oldest taking the longest time to get there but the way it gets there is far less cynical, obvious or divorced from reality than one might reasonably expect such a film to be.
Some of the film’s smartest and funniest beats come in the form of a foster-parenting support-group that Ellie and Pete attend on a weekly basis. Headed up by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who are both funny but grounded and compassionate, these meetings see our central couple going from being overly confident of their new-found parenting skills to hating their kids and hating themselves the very next week before returning more than a little heartbroken the week after that.
It’s solid, well-played stuff that structures the film and provides some of the film’s funniest moments, especially in the single mom who wants to, as Ellie laughingly puts it, “The Blind Side” her own tall, athletic black teenage boy to sporting fame but is constantly bewildered at her inability to have her rather specific wish come true.
What really makes the film work as well as it does, though, is that you simply can’t help but like the people in it. Whether it’s the three kids (nicely portrayed by Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julliana Gamiz) or Ellie and Pete’s broadly comic but still fun extended families, headed up by two rather different matriarchs (a typically great Margo Martindale and Airplane’s Julie Hagerty still funny after all these years), you go along with the film because it’s so easy to go along with these people.
Most crucially, though, the film’s success is mostly the result of having Rose Byrne at its centre. No disrespect to Mark Wahlberg who is funny and likable here but Byrne is the true star of the show, who not only brings most of the laughs but, as the constantly exasperated but warm-hearted Ellie, most of the humanity too. Byrne is a weirdly under-appreciated comic actress but she is one of the standout comedic actors of her generation, with impeccable comic timing and a very particular mixture of beauty, poise and class with a gun-ho willingness to make herself look as ridiculous as possible for a laugh. She is constantly the best thing in most of the things she’s done and she is on killer form in Instant Family.
It doesn’t matter how preposterous or obvious or obnoxious certain elements of Instant Family may be, Rose Byrne always makes sure that it’s worth watching.