2018, PG-13, 119 min. Directed by Sean Anders. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Isabela Moner, Margo Martindale, Eve Harlow, Gustavo Quiroz.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Nov. 16, 2018
Ellie (Byrne) and Pete (Wahlberg) have reached a very comfortable spot in their lives. After years of struggling to turn their remodeling business into something profitable, they’re now at the point where they can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. So when Ellie suggests that they look into adoption as a possible next step, neither of them are too daunted by the idea of bringing a small child into their lives. It’s only when they are smitten with 15-year-old Lizzy (Moner) and her two young siblings that they realize how simple things were before and how difficult their life is about to get.
Based on the real-life adoption experiences of writer/director Anders, Instant Family sets out to soften the edges of a difficult process for multiplex audiences across the country. There’s no shortage of charm on display throughout the film; as a couple, Pete and Ellie offer the right balance of compassion and ignorance, and co-screenwriters John Morris and Anders’ script never shies away from showing the most selfish parts of their transition from self-reliance to parenthood. There's also a slew of likable and recognizable performers (actors like Octavia Spencer, Margo Martindale, and Tig Notaro) in supporting roles, who move the story along considerably just by being amplified versions of themselves onscreen. As the story of two parents going through the adoption process, the movie has a few nice things to say about stepping outside your own comfort zone to make a difference in the lives of others.
However, the challenge – the one this film proves incapable of overcoming – is how you marry a broad family comedy with the endless complexity of the adoption process. Take the children’s birth mother. When she reappears in her children’s lives halfway through the movie, Instant Family makes a series of sobering observations on how her presence confuses the youngest children and causes them to act out at home. But her presence also backs the film into an inescapable corner: How can Instant Family offer a crowd-pleasing happy ending if Pete and Ellie lose their foster children? Like many things in this movie, the answer to this question is far less interesting than the question itself, and Anders’ film chooses – as it also does with questions of ethnicity – to awkwardly sidestep some of the issues raised by its own pursuit of authenticity.
Those looking for a family comedy aimed at adults could do a lot worse than Instant Family, but the demands of a wide release have sapped much of the film’s dramatic potential. I can’t help but wonder what kind of movie Anders might’ve made if he’d been a little less worried with commercial success.