Byrne, Wahlberg and ‘Instant Family’ earn a group hug
Directed by: Sean Anders
Written by: Sean Anders and John Morris
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, and Julianna Gamez
“Instant Family” - “I looked on child rearing, not only as a work of love and duty, but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world, and one that demanded the best that I could bring to it.” – Rose Kennedy
“Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realize this as soon as they are born, and they use sleep deprivation to break you.” – Ray Romano
Writer/director Sean Anders and writer John Morris penned “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010), “We’re the Millers” (2013) and “Horrible Bosses 2” (2014), but they move into lighter, family-friendlier tones with their new movie “Instant Family” and with good reason. The film is loosely-based on Anders’ life, as Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a successful, childless couple who decide to adopt three kids.
Anders’ personal film is a touching, sweet concoction of unconditional parental love but heavily seasoned with the authentic trauma of raising children. At times, Pete’s (Wahlberg) and Ellie’s (Byrne) anxiety runs painfully thick, due to the abrupt change from their relatively carefree dual-income-no-kids existence to a confusing maelstrom of self-doubt and repeated rejection.
Ellie thought about having kids for a while, but their immediate leap into parenthood begins, when she explores an adoption website. She sheds some tears, and Pete feels the same way but questions their aptitude for the job.
“Ellie, people who take in foster kids are really special…the kind of people who volunteer, when it’s not even a holiday. We don’t even volunteer on a holiday,” he says.
After visiting an adoption agency (managed by familiar faces Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro) and a family-picnic day, Pete and Ellie decide to adopt Lizzy (Isabela Moner), but she’s has two younger siblings Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). So, they adopt three kids which massively increases their responsibility.
Like signing up for a 5K but deciding to run a marathon…on race day! Pete and Ellie, however, embrace their long haul-decision with love and yes…fear.
Admittedly, the overall story arc does follow a very predictable track, one that could be recited while half-asleep during a lazy Sunday afternoon on the couch, as Pete, Ellie, Lizzy, Juan, and Lita feel content and eager about their joyous beginnings, but inevitable adjustments and conflict soon arise. Lizzy and Lita engage in demonstrative outbursts, while Juan’s accident-prone proclivity becomes his struggle. Perhaps, the film is simply balancing cantankerous behavior with slapstick, but Juan’s frequent mishaps become tiresome for Pete and Ellie, as well as the audience.
Still, the kids, Pete and Ellie are an awfully likable bunch, as waves of good intentions can easily win one over throughout the 119-minute runtime. Even though the ups and downs feel lightweight, Anders purposely includes weighty messages, including a staggering statistic that 500,000 U.S. kids are in foster care today. He devotes substantial on-screen minutes to the inherent struggles of foster care, including teens who age out of the system and supply vs. demand issues. Spencer and Notaro, however, help bridge these problematic realities with frequent witty moments. Other prospective parents lighten the mood too, including a single mom who seems to be motivated – as Ellie notes - by 2009’s “The Blind Side”.
Well, it’s nearly impossible to root against this family, as Wahlberg and Byrne are the film’s driving forces. Wahlberg is a natural at portraying an inexperienced dad who tries to translate “kid” into a language that he can comprehend, and Byrne beautifully adds a gentle touch balanced with impeccable comedic timing. Truly, it’s hard to imagine a better fit for Ellie than Byrne. With all due respect to gifted actresses like Sandra Bullock, Kristen Wiig and Elizabeth Banks, Byrne has an inherent soft-spoken vulnerability mixed with a resolute depth that is a perfect blend for Ellie’s step into motherhood. Although both parents eagerly reach for bonds with the children, Ellie’s exploration is the film’s soul.
Bryne’s performance, her chemistry with Wahlberg and the film’s adoption-exploration - with both amusing and honest tones - earn a group hug.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.