This family-friendly comedy was inspired by the life of its director, but can't find the balance between authentic and formulaic.
January 10, 2019
In Mark Wahlberg's performances, men are patriotic heroes and fun-loving dads. With his Funky Bunch and Boogie Nights days long behind him, that's the image he's been cultivating on-screen of late. The actor's resume has become littered with gung-ho action and family-friendly comedies — Patriot's Day, Mile 22 and Transformers sequels on one side; a pair of Daddy's Home movies and now Instant Family on the other. As different as the two might seem, both types of film basically allow him to play the same character. He doesn't disappear into his roles or make every part feel distinctive, but simply adds to his particular portrait of masculinity. While Wahlberg might hunt down terrorists in one flick, battle shape-shifting robots in another and then face the challenges of being a father in the next, he's really just painting the same picture one movie at a time.
Instant Family, Wahlberg's latest all-ages affair, slides seamlessly into his recent filmography. As for the actor, he steps into the shoes of Pete Wagner, a take-charge kind of guy who renovates and sells houses for a profit with his wife Ellie (Rose Byrne). The couple's life is comfortable and happy, but they've fallen into a rut. So, being at the age where everyone comments about their lack of kids, they start thinking about helping children in need. Approaching becoming foster parents like they're remodelling a rundown home, the pair considers their new task a spiritual and emotional revamp. And the arrival of teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her siblings Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz) goes smoothly at first; in fact, Pete and Ellie are initially pretty pleased with themselves.
It's easy to see why Instant Family appealed to Wahlberg, who gets to play another tough but tender everyman facing a challenge, looking out for his family and doing what his type of guy does. That said, there's more to this specific story, with the film inspired by the life of director and foster parent Sean Anders. There's an evident ring of truth to many of the movie's scenes — the awkwardness of adoption fairs, where potential caregivers browse for kids like they might a new pet, coo over cute tykes and steer clear of teenagers, provides just one example. Anders hasn't come up with an offbeat scenario solely for laughs, and it shows in the script penned with his regular co-writer John Morris.
Certainly, the authentic side of Instant Family shines through on occasion. It definitely shines brighter than the picture's unremarkable imagery. But Anders also wrote and directed the broad, formulaic Daddy's Home and its equally grating follow-up, and he's not giving up his by-the-numbers ways yet. As a result, Instant Family is a movie with its heart firmly in the right spot, yet it doesn't trust that audiences will buy in without the expected array of physical mishaps, kids saying the darnedest things and adults getting frustrated in the usual cliched manner. It's a film that feels caught between what it wants to say and what it needs to be — and while supporting actors Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro bring genuine comedic chops to the more overt comic moments, the movie just can't reconcile its various parts.
Think the Bad Neighbours flicks, but pitting new parents against actual children in a kid-friendly fashion. Think the aforementioned Daddy's Home duo, too, but much less stale and more sincere. Instant Family is never as entertaining as the first set of films or as excruciating as the second, and if you prefer the former to the latter, Byrne is obviously here to help. Like her co-lead, she's doing something that she's done before, however the Aussie actor never makes her character feel like a stock-standard part. That she manages such a feat while being saddled with some of the movie's most routine material — playing a thirty-something woman who suddenly gets maternal and regrets her life decisions, namely — confirms why she's one of today's great, often underrated comedic performers. When it comes to enlivening an otherwise run-of-the-mill role, Wahlberg might want to take note.