Juggling Laughs: Our Review of ‘Instant Family’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - November 16, 2018
Juggling Laughs: Our Review of ‘Instant Family’

Instant Family finds Mark Wahlberg teaming up for the third time with Sean Anders, who directed the Daddy’s Home series. In that series, Anders cast Wahlberg as the perfect male and the thorn on Will Ferrell’s side. This time around he’s less idealized, slightly paunchy but still muscular. He plays Pete Wagner, and he and his wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) are house flippers who decide to adopt. It’s a rigorous process, the first step of which involves a class with other aspiring parents. They’re a picture of white moderate heterosexuality swimming with LGBT couples and single moms.

There’s a scene with one of those classes where an interracial gay male couple speak up. The movie then cuts to an evangelical couple who shake their head. It does not cut to Wahlberg. There is a feeling that this serves as mea culpa on Wahlberg’s part, knowing his past. It’s as if Walhberg is now comfortable playing characters who are around gay people and depicting the homophobia they have to endure. Race also factor in here. Pete brings up the ‘white savior’ stereotype that their case workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) shut down with force.

The white savior factor comes to mind in Instant Family, as I’m watching it, aware of its existence within two contexts. The first is the Scoop that happened here in Canada, the second is the adoption of migrant children happening now in America. Despite this being about white parents adopting Hispanic children, this is not about those two historical situation. There’s a worry that some people in the audience will conflate the specific situation here with others in the news. There’s also the question of what this movie is about, if it’s for mostly white audiences.

It’s also hard to begrudge this movie since Anders based it on his own personal experiences with adoption. Spolier alert, but it ends with a picture of him and his wife with three Hispanic children. These real life versions don’t align with the ones onscreen, which is fine. People who decide to adopt have an ideal in their head. But thanks to the agency’s nudging and their own initiative, they choose someone else. Fifteen year old, Lizzie (Isabela Moner), who seems edgy yet smart. She also comes with two siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz, Jr.) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

In depicting the tribulations of raising these children, the movie gives them realistic and fantastical problems. Lizzie thinks she’s an adult, Juan is emotionally sensitive. And Lita needs a lot of deprogramming from living under her biological and former foster parents. But it’s the way that the movie shows those problems that it goes sideways. Pete and Ellie’s first visitation with the children goes wrong when a basketball ends up on Juan’s head. At the risk of sounding grumpy, Anders’ tendencies for sight gags is his worst enemy. Is this really the only way to depict messy parenting?

Anders keeps getting these fall spots and milks them without subtlety. Christmas is when Daddy’s Home came out, this comes out before Thanksgiving, and both holidays figure prominently here. The Thanksgiving meal Ellie has with her family is what drives her to the edge to say yes to adopting. And Christmas is when the honeymoon period between parents and children stops. But I’ll give Instant Family credit where it’s due. Holidays happen during the beginning. Most comedies build up to Christmas battles while this gets that disaster out of the way.

There are other silver linings here, one that explores Pete and Ellie taking on the role as new parents. Wahlberg does his usual whiny shtick as Pete, although thankfully he hasn’t aged out of that too much to look too off putting. By relying on the same acting tools, he inadvertently lets the other actors shine. He also has a good rapport with Byrne Ellie, the second comedic character to make fun of Ann Taylor and pull it off. The actors playing the children are equally competent, specifically Moner who shows layers within the angry teen girl archetype.

The scenes in the Wagner home try to provide the movie’s heart and soul. But the scenes with the parenting classes provide genuine laughter. Comedies like this exist for comedians and character actors to make quick but great performances. Iliza Schlesinger stands out as an adoptive parent, a severe single mother trying to adopt an athletic black teenager and train him. I’m a fan of Schlesinger even during her dating host days. It’s nice to see her tackle something that doesn’t have to do with appearances, even if she has to repeat the same jokes.

The scenes involving the Wagner’s extended family have diminishing but tolerable returns. Tom Segura plays either Ellie’s brother or brother in law, the script doesn’t necessarily explain that well. He’s a capable doofus at the holiday dining table. His character brings up having a child of his own blood, which sends Ellie to the edge. Margo Martindale plays Pete’s mother who knows to make her presence known in the room. There’s a rut that ensemble comedies like this get though. It gives these character actors too little screen time to fully and properly make their talents shine.

A big cast is already a juggling act but we also have to address what the movie’s tries to do. Juxtaposing big, hollow comedy with sentimentality are two things in this already big of a plate. That combination is occasionally off-putting. There’s a scene where Karen describes the children’s biological mother and former foster parents that seem distasteful. And not even the Oscar winning Spencer can sell those lines for laughs. Karen then tries to pull back and be an earth mother to those children. These moments are indicative of this movie’s overwhelmingly terrible tendencies.


  • Release Date: 11/16/2018
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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