Film Review: Instant Family glosses over home truths

A scene from Instant Family starring Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg . Picture: Paramount Pictures
A scene from Instant Family starring Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg . Picture: Paramount Pictures

INSTANT FAMILY

G, 119 minutes Director: Sean Anders

In Sean Anders' comedy-drama Instant Family, Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie Wagner, a married couple from the suburbs who earn their living by "flipping" houses - buying rundown properties on the cheap, fixing them up and selling them on.

It's an odd but suggestive metaphor for the film's subject. Having delayed starting a family of their own, Pete and Ellie decide, almost on a whim, to become foster parents, with a view to eventual adoption.

Before they know it, they've taken on responsibility for a trio of challenging kids: surly teenage Lizzie (Isabela Moner), who wants to paint her bedroom black; sensitive Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), who apologises for everything; and tantrum-prone little Lita (Julianna Gamiz), who refuses to eat anything but potato chips.

Instant Family marks a departure for a director previously known for broad though not wholly thoughtless farces - most notably, the Daddy's Home movies, starring Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as rival father figures whose contrasting notions of masculinity could be seen as emblematic of a divided America.

Here Anders' didactic side is even further to the fore. Reportedly inspired by his own experiences as a foster parent, the film resembles a public service announcement encouraging us to follow in his footsteps while providing us with a step-by-step guide to what to expect.

It's also a lot like a sitcom - in particular, the kind of American sitcom which had its heyday in the 1980s, where social issues were tackled and moral lessons doled out week by week.

This is especially true of the scenes where Pete and Ellie attend a support group presided over by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, as a pair of social workers who supply wise running commentary while bickering like an old married couple.

The trick of balancing emotional moments with laughs requires a finesse Anders isn't always able to summon. The film is at its crudest when it shows us Pete and Ellie rescuing Lizzie and her siblings from the care of their previous foster parents, white trash jerks who then disappear from the story without a glance behind.

Indeed, the film is confined almost entirely to the point of view of the Wagners, an average middle-class couple or at least a Hollywood idea of one: they comment on their own emotions with knowing irony, but also believe in saying grace at Christmas.

Instant challenge: Octavia Spencer, Rose Byrne, Tig Notaro and Mark Wahlberg navigate the choppy waters of foster parenting in Instant Family.

Instant challenge: Octavia Spencer, Rose Byrne, Tig Notaro and Mark Wahlberg navigate the choppy waters of foster parenting in Instant Family.

Both Wahlberg and Byrne are coasting to some degree, playing characters not far removed from their usual star personae: she's a worrier, he's a somewhat tactless gung-ho type, but the good intentions of both are never in doubt.

Still, the film has enough self-awareness to make sure that at least some of the potential objections get answered in advance. As a white guy, Pete is worried that taking a trio of Hispanic kids into his home will make him look like a self-congratulatory "white saviour". The answer, simply, is that how he looks isn't really the point.

Part of what fascinates in a movie like Instant Family is the effort to keep the tone upbeat, even glib - lots of montages set to pop songs - even as various tricky, painful issues come into play.

How far are Pete and Ellie entitled to think of Lizzie and her siblings as "their" children? And how far are they really behaving unselfishly, as opposed to using the situation to gratify their own emotional needs?

Anders raises these questions, but resists delving into them very deeply: this premise would have been handled very differently by a specialist in neurosis like James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment).

Likewise, when it comes to the realities of caring for children who have suffered neglect and abuse, there's a limit to how much the film can show or even hint at, especially on the understanding that viewers of all ages may be watching together. Even the language isn't allowed to get too harsh.

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