14 February 2019 (UK)
A couple find themselves in over their heads when they foster three children.
Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Octavia Spencer
Perhaps the most difficult thing to review as a critic is a plain ol’ decent film. Something that’s by no means special, maybe even completely forgettable, but one that you mostly enjoyed at the moment. But that’s what I’m here to do with Instant Family; the new comedy from Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home, That’s My Boy) and Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter, Mile 22) about a happy couple who decide to foster 3 children but soon find themselves way out of their comfort zone.
Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne; Peter Rabbit, Insidious) are a happily married couple that fix up or “flip” houses for a living. With their comfortable lifestyle, they start to contemplate having children and are bought to the attention of the shocking adoption statistics in America. Curious but unsure, they enroll in a fostering program and eventually meet teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner; Transformers: The Last Knight, Sicario 2) and make a connection. The catch is… She comes with two younger siblings.
Instant Family doesn’t waste any time getting to the meat of its premise. In fact, it’s setup rushes ahead as fast as possible to get the potential family together. As dizzying and devoid of any story/character development it may be, the film only ever becomes entertaining once the kids are in the picture, so it’s probably for the best it gets there quick. Pete and Ellie are likeable enough, but they are least charming when alone with each other, and their humorous bickering more often than not falls flat. But once they meet the kids, or can bounce off the more extreme personalities of their fostering councillors (played very well by Octavia Spencer & Tig Notaro), they get the chance to engage.
Each of the three children are well fleshed out during the film and not merely played for laughs. Moner as Lizzy gives the film its strongest performance: she’s witty, protective and angry. Even after being let down by her real-life mother so many times, she still hopes to be reunited with her one day. Her struggle to accept anyone new in her life is played very sincerely and is by far the strongest aspect of the film, especially in the third act. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is her clumsy younger brother who is missing any common sense, but otherwise very well-intentioned and sweet. Lita (Julianna Gamiz) is the youngest and like any other toddler, is hyper-active and prone to tantrums. They all feel very genuine together as a family which helps immensely with the believability of the whole picture.
All that being said, the downside to Instant Family is how unremarkable it is. As one of the dozens upon dozens of American studio comedies, it’s unavoidably forgettable even if it’s quality is higher than average. I certainly laughed more than I thought I would which was a nice surprise, but it still falls into the same cringe-inducing comedy formula at times. The films sincerity is also weighted by a mushy conclusion that’s ticking off a ‘feel-good film ending’ checklist. It’s a shame because the film succeeds in its final confrontation between Pete, Ellie and Lizzy, which feels unburdened from its own blueprint. It made me long for the much superior kids care home drama Short Term 12, but all in all, the missteps of Instant Family can be forgiven.
What can’t be forgiven is the film’s score. Now I’m not expecting a Hans Zimmer powerhouse for a gentle family comedy/drama, but wow this film has one of the worst, most stock sounding scores I’ve heard in a long time. If you’ve ever played The Sims and remember the building music, that’s essentially what you have to listen to throughout Instant Family. If you’re not familiar with the said video game, just imagine elevator music. It’s pitiful and actively worsens the more affecting scenes. Cinematography and direction are once again unremarkable but difficult to actively complain at, as it does what’s intended.
Somewhere inside Instant Family is a much better film and it occasionally shows it’s worth. It’s endearing and has heart, but you never get to feel it’s full force thanks to a shifting tone that doesn’t earn its happy ending and more resembles a sitcom.
Solid performance from Isabela Moner
Believable family dynamic
Some genuinely funny scenes
Awful stock music
Some genuinely unfunny scenes
Overall forgettable nature