A couple find themselves in over their heads when they foster three children. (from IMDB)
Family dynamics aren't always a funny thing, but sometimes the right movie script can highlight the funniest aspects of life as a family. New comedy Instant Family is a different kind of situational concept, where a couple in their 40s decides to take in a foster child, and they up taking in three siblings all at once. The film manages to offer more heart than humor, but it's definitely a messy mixture... just like family can be.
Sean Anders, who previously directed Mark Wahlberg in two chapters of Daddy's Home, reunites with the star for a third time in a row, this time for Instant Family. The film was directly inspired by Anders' own experience with foster child adoption, and he even co-wrote the film himself. But just like with Daddy's Home, Anders' films have family movie elements begging to come to the forefront, but he tends to heavy-handedly saturate his films with PG-13 comedy material. After scenes where kids are using profanity and Rose Byrne drops the "F" word, other characters make some lewd comments or unnecessarily spout blasphemy. Sometimes it's hard not to be moved by the story, while other times, you just feel like you're being manipulated more than just watching a story play out.
For starters, when Wahlberg's Pete and Byrne's Ellie attend a foster child seminar, the room is populated with other couples that are glorified cartoon characters. Pete and Ellie are more exaggerated versions of the more relatable, down-to-earth couple, while there's also the stereotypical ultra religious and naive Christian couple (because no one in Hollywood believes there's any other kind of Christian) and a pair of gay men who are painted nearly as the world's most perfect and loving couple (which just further contributes to Hollywood's campaign to normalize this abnormal lifestyle). Finally, and most bizarrely, there's a pretentious single woman named October who just wants to adopt a teenager with sports skill for her to raise, which just becomes a running joke that feels more awkward than funny, and makes the film feel much less real than it aspires to.
Still, that's the odd part about Instant Family; it's constantly teetering between reality and surrealism. Ellie is refreshingly honest about how she feels in the most stressful of situations with the foster kids, which is likely to have more than a few audience members nodding and thinking "Oh my gosh, that's me!" while Pete is a bit more idealistic and a comic counterpart to Ellie's struggles. There's an interesting scene where the married couple are sitting in their room before going to sleep and admitting to each other how much foster care seems like a mistake. At one point, Ellie admits to even hating the children, and while the scene is played off as somewhat funny, it's also a moment of brutal honesty, where you may feel conflicted with how real the film is being while simultaneously being over the top or unrealistic. It almost feels like this movie is a full-on drama that was changed here and there to work (to a degree) as a comedy. Moments where dealing with the subject matter of the foster children's mother being a recovering drug addict are heavy stuff. They try to lighten it a bit, but there's only so much you can do. Throughout the story, the children are struggling with genuine, serious issues that aren't funny by themselves. And when Pete's mom drops a major truth bomb on the struggling newly parents about her own self-worth and how being told you're garbage (she used stronger language) enough can lead you to believe it to be true, it's tough not to feel like this "comedy" isn't afraid to suckerpunch you a few times along the way.
I left the theater feeling kind of overwhelmed. Content aside, the film has great things to say about foster care, self-sacrifice, what really matters in life, and the power and importance of family, but there's a lot of muck to get around--whether it's the film's content (and constant profanity), or how weighty the subject matter is. I was concerned that the movie would have nothing but negative things to say about faith via the sappy Christian couple, but they mostly used them for comedic purposes in a moderate way (i.e. they played up their naivety instead of demonizing them). It definitely didn't make them look good, but it didn't make them look entirely awful either. (Although, they did be sure to have them make a face and look uncomfortable the first time the married gay guys spoke.) There was a snarky remark, however, when they made a comment about the Lord not giving them more than they can handle, causing one of the foster care workers to mutter something about that not being true. There are two scenes of the main characters saying grace during the movie, but the first is at Thanksgiving when Ellie's whole family joins hands and starts to talk about how thankful they are, which just turns into a huge family fight. The second is sadly probably the most positive spiritual moment in the film, when Pete and Ellie say grace with their new kids, but then mayhem ensues shortly after. I know Wahlberg has been open about his faith in God publicly in real life, but this film just felt like it was going out of its way to make its own comments about the lifestyle and belief system. It's especially a shame given that the pro-adoption message here is a good one and even something that's scripturally supported.
I haven't seen Byrne in such a lead role like this before (my introduction to her was the film Knowing), and I thought she was really fantastic here. She played the character with heart and believability, and she proved to be more than capable at comedy too. Wahlberg was good but somewhat bland at times as Pete. However, sometimes he can really hit the mark (no pun intended) at the right moment for the perfect reaction or to generate a laugh, and he brought that to this film. Together, they made a great couple you could easily relate to (but I'd have to say Byrne was far more down to earth than Wahlberg).
While the film is about family, it's hardly suitable for the whole family. Profanity is unceasing throughout, with frequent uses of the "S" word from all of the main characters (including the family's teenage girl, Lizzy), and the aforementioned pronounced use of the "F" word from Byrne. There's also an extended sequence where the term "d*ck pic" is used repeatedly, and when someone asks what that is, they frustratingly reiterate the phrase. In the sequence, Ellie and Pete discover a boy has been sending pictures of his privates to their new teenage daughter (we don't see the pictures), which causes them to flip out. They then harass an innocent kid in front of a large group of his peers in a case of mistaken identity. Then they learn that the person sending these photos to a minor is actually an early-20's janitor at the school, and Pete gets a bit violent with the guy. It's all played for laughs, but any unsuspecting parents going into the film might not be ready for that conversation with their child (A friend of mine took his thirteen-year-old daughter to see the film and expressed to me how awkward that whole sequence was). In addition, there are a couple scenes of brief, bloody violence involving Juan getting hurt -- whether by a bloody nose or an accidental nail gun to the foot--but it isn't gory beyond some blood on a cloth or a nail sticking out of the top of his shoe. Lastly, the topic of the kids' mother being a recovering drug addict is a heavy one, and coupled with the emotional dynamic of foster kids moving around a lot, being dragged to court, etc, they're themes that are anything but light. All this to say--this movie earns its PG-13 rating with ease.
Even as I wrap up my thoughts on Instant Family, I'm left feeling divided on how I really feel about the film. In ways, it was enjoyable and it truly proved to be a genuine tear-jerker, but its execution was muddled and uneven. You could certainly do worse than Instant Family, and it might be a good movie to see if you've ever had interest in the foster care system, but otherwise, this is a dramedy that you probably won't need to rush out and see this instant.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 11/28/18)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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