Del and Mladen review ‘Instant Family’

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Instant Family” Starring Rose Byrne, Mark Wahlberg, Isabela Merced, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro and others. Directed by Sean Anders. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13. Amazon Prime.

Del’s take

I don’t care if it’s a gigantic, snot-nosed, scabby kneed, teen-angsty ball of schmaltz better suited to The Hallmark Channel than Amazon Prime. I loved “Instant Family” and I’d watch again – this time with two boxes of Kleenex at my side, not just one.

There, Mladen, are you satisfied? I admit it – I bawled, like a slobbery baby. Tears of joy, though I didn’t raise three kids and don’t know the other side of the parenting story, the one they never show in comedies about parenting. “Instant Family” is one of those movies that draws together many ribbons of improbability into a sparkly wrapped gift of feel-good, though the bow may be frayed and lopsided.

In “Instant Family,” Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) are hard-charging Gen. Xers who have ignored the ticking of their biological clocks to flip houses – until a snotty remark by a family member sets them on the path of becoming foster parents. At a fostering meet-and-greet they encounter smart, sassy teenager Lizzy (Merced), part of a package deal with her younger brother and sister. Pete and Ellie are charmed by Lizzy and take the plunge, bringing all three kids into their home with predictable and chaotic results. Mix one part teenage rebellion with another part adolescent oversensitivity and a dollop of pre-adolescent tantrums – plus a dog the size of a brontosaurus – and you’ve got a world class test of patience and persistence for first-time parents Pete and Ellie, who rise to the challenge with something I would not call “charm” but a kind of endearing, fumbling incompetence.

“Instant Family” has several laugh-out-loud moments tinged with humor befitting an R-rated comedy. Pete’s soliloquy about “rescue kids” during the foster parent orientation meeting is off-the-scale politically incorrect … but it’s funny as hell. When Lizzy’s romantic interest sends her a dick pic, Pete and Ellie show up at Lizzy’s high school for an epically hilarious confrontation that lands everybody in jail.

All this is not to say “Instant Family” is without flaws. The humor is uneven, bouncing between old-fashioned slapstick to farce, then subtle irony. It was hard to settle on a comedic tone for the movie. As they’re considering adoption, Pete reminds Ellie that people who foster children are the kind of people who volunteer even when there’s not a holiday, and he and Ellie don’t volunteer when there IS a holiday. That’s a clever line and there are others, but they are swallowed by the incandescence of burning napkin dispensers and baseballs bonking off young foreheads. Also, Whalberg and Byrne at times try too hard for the pathos befitting a youngish couple wanting to complete their lives, so it feels forced and unnatural at times. And the persistent preaching about the fostering and adoption “system” and its woes grew wearisome. Is “Instant Family” a comedy or a recruitment film? Yes, we know lots of troubled kids could use the steadying influence of a Pete and Ellie. But to be lectured about it over and over again tested my commitment to what is supposed to be an entertainment product.

Overall, however, the charms of “Instant Family” exceed its flaws and you’ll be unable to feel anything but happy when an exhausted Pete and Ellie finally come to understand what it is they’ve been looking for.

If you’re a fan of blended-family comedies like “Parenthood,” “Yours, Mine and Ours” or even “The Brady Bunch,” I think you’ll like the harder-edged “Instant Family.”  

I score the movie a solid B, edging toward B+.

I predict Mladen will remind you that I am not a parent, and he is, and because of that his interpretation is more valid than mine, to which I would reply that in a way I really am a “parent” and one of these days I will raise Mladen to at least understand the errors of his movie-watching ways.

Mladen’s take

No, Del, I am not satisfied.

And, yes, I have raised three kids, though they are my own, and in the same combination as the instant family, two girls, one boy.

And, no self-respecting paleontologist uses “brontosaurus” anymore. It’s diplodocus, though I’ll grant you apatosaurus, if you get pissy.

“Instant Family” is no better than a C+ for the simple reason that a movie that treats a family as its subject and object tends to be weak. It’s far more interesting when family foibles come to light as part of a larger story such as happened, if I recall correctly, in the 1995 “Brady Bunch” movie or the “Brady Bunch” sitcom. Recall that the BB sitcom dismissed the merged family in its title song and then the show moved on to tell a story about life, though it generally doesn’t include a maid.

The first quarter of “Instant Family” struck me as glib. That’s the other reason I give it its mediocre grade. Pete and Ellie, a childless and what the ’80s would label a yuppie couple, realize that material well-being ain’t all that satisfying or that they should share some of their fortunate condition with others or whatever. Also, I assume, Ellie’s biologic clock is ticking.

Typical of yuppies, or what Del calls Gen-Xers, the couple pursues the least cumbersome process and most physically painless way to family-hood – fostering. They wanted to test-drive children before committing to raising them or having a brood of their own. Any good Marxist would label that exploitative and any good capitalist influenced by Milton Freidman, efficient and rational because children cost money. In either case, the children are reduced to commodities.

I don’t get it. Why do people want to watch movies about families? We’ve all lived in one, whatever its form. We all know people who’ve lived in one, regardless of its form. We’ve all talked about our families and listened to others talk about theirs. Families are boring. The real-life family adventures that come along are spread across a lifetime, rather than 118 minutes of a film. When I watch a movie, I want to experience the terror of being targeted as food by a 25-foot-long, 6,000-pound white shark or the mind-bending notion that I’m getting raised by machines that tap my body as a source of heat and electricity. I want films that offer something other than a banal interpretation of living with, and in, a family, which I, and you, have done and are doing. Shit, watching a film about families makes me feel almost like a voyeur.

Also, as Del accidentally and indirectly touched on when he asked if “Instant Family” was a comedy or recruitment film for foster parenting, you have to be careful about mixing Hollywood with staggering problems such as the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of children enduring inadequate parents and faltering childhoods. Look, does anyone, all four or five of you reading this review, NOT know that there are a whole lot of children out there who need bona fide parents? So, watch “Instant Family” with this analogue in mind, “Never give a pet as a Christmas present.” Fostering displaced children is a serious endeavor. The urge shouldn’t be triggered by watching a movie. Nor does highlighting foster parenting in a film do anything to lessen the need, which, paradoxically, might be the effect on some people. People like those who support twice-impeached fascist moron Trump.

Though, as always, I hesitate giving Del credit for any good point that he makes, I agree that there are a few comedic moments in the film that approach sparkling, but only one bit of the movie was genuinely heart-rending. Rose and Wahlberg are very good in the movie. I suspect they contributed exactly what the scriptwriters and director wanted to make the movie feel real-ish. The three semi-orphans portrayed by Merced, Spencer, and Notaro are very good, too. But, “Instant Family” contributed nothing fresh to the ever-popular moviemaking shtick of treating families as wonderful and sucky at the same time. If you’ve seen one family movie, you’ve seen them all.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.


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