The laughter and tears come in roughly equal measure in “Instant Family,” but rarely where you think they’ll be. While the picture eventually arrives more or less where you think it will, it rarely travels in the directions you expect. In the process, “Instant Family” becomes a special picture indeed, not only an audience-pleasing family comedy, but also likely an entertainment classic as well as an instant holiday perennial.
Pete and Ellen are a childless couple in their early forties. Partners in business and in marriage, in approximately that order, the couple purchase and renovate houses for sale to affluent families. Having put off starting a family because each always felt the other wasn’t ready, when the couple purchases and begins to rehabilitate a home containing five bedrooms across the street from a playground, they begin to consider the possibility of foster parenting.
With a wry notion that they can bring a disadvantaged older child into their home and pretend they started earlier, the couple begins an eight-week orientation class in foster parenting, among other like-minded couples and individuals with their own motivations. But when Ellen and Pete find themselves faced with the challenge of simultaneously hosting three young siblings with a tragic shared background, they quickly learn that parenting is not quite as simple as renovating homes.
Written by John Morris and Sean Anders, and based on the actual real-life experiences of writer and director Anders, “Instant Family” is one comedy that steps up to the plate and bats a grand slam home run in just about every possible way. Despite its often maudlin subject matter, this picture is a sharply observant, perceptive and heartwarming comedic masterpiece from its first frame until its last. Never aiming for cheap laughs, “Instant Family” instead mines affectionate humor from believable characters in credible situations, and in the process produces the kind of satisfied laughter that usually only can be found in real life.
Led with virtuoso, heartfelt performances by Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg as Ellen and Pete, there are no slackers or small performances in this perfectly-cast picture. Special standouts include the by-the-book Tig Notaro and plain-spoken Octavia Spencer as social workers who train the rookie foster parents and ease their transition into parenthood. Notaro and Spencer work together like old pros, and their scenes together are a highlight in a picture filled with memorable moments.
Likewise the wonderful Margo Martindale as Wahlberg’s gregarious and sometimes overbearing mother, Iliza Shlesinger as another prospective foster parent, and Javier Ronceros and Rosemary Dominguez as a veteran adoptive couple who both inspire and challenge Byrne and Wahlberg. Julie Hagerty and Michael O’Keefe as Byrne’s parents also figure prominently into what is likely the most side-splittingly funny Thanksgiving holiday family dinner ever captured on film.
But during a year filled with strong characterizations from young performers such as Isla Fisher in “Eighth Grade” and Amandla Stenberg in “The Hate U Give,” the real breakout star of “Instant Family” is 17-year-old Isabela Moner as Lizzy, the oldest of the trio of siblings who come to live with Pete and Ellen. Far from being just a comedic foil for the antics of the other performers, Moner builds a full-blooded characterization as a child who’s seen so much of the sad part of life that she’s unable to recognize the good parts.
Opening in 3258 theaters across North America, “Instant Family” is writer and director Anders’ third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg following 2015’s “Daddy’s Home” and its 2017 sequel. Originally scheduled for release on February 15, 2019, the picture was moved forward by three months to coincide with the holiday season. The picture’s gala Los Angeles premiere was cancelled due to the continuing wildfires in the region, and the film was instead screened in an evacuation center for victims of the fires.
It probably won’t win any major motion picture awards, but “Instant Family” is a movie not even a Grinch can dislike. And if you aren’t moved to tears by the picture’s denouement, consult a physician--you don’t have a heart.
The picture is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, adult language, and numerous references to substance abuse.