Film Review: Instant Family

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne try to adopt a new outlook—and three kids.
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The road to movie hell is paved with good intentions.

You certainly feel Instant Family was made for all the right reasons. Director Sean Anders, who’s done a number of silly comedies—two Daddy’s Home pictures, and those are the highlights—wanted to put his talents to something a little more serious, a tad more important.

He also wanted to do something for America’s overworked foster-care system, which had given him the three children he and his wife subsequently adopted. So he brought on a couple of consultants, and frequent star Mark Wahlberg, and set out to make a movie.

Instead, he made two.

The first is a broad, occasionally offensive comedy that trades on lazy clichés (sassy African-American ladies and gay men, troubled Hispanic teens, creepy conservative Christians, dotty old women). The second is a preachy PSA that lectures us on progressive parenting skills, foster-kid trauma, and the ins-and-outs of the family-court system.

And neither movie is really that much fun.

The plot presents Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a couple of HGTV-ready house-flippers who suddenly wake up on the wrong side of 40 realizing they forgot to have kids. So they decide to jump-start the process by adopting a five-year-old—and end up bringing home three siblings: a tantrum-throwing little kid, plus her clumsy tween brother and mouthy big sister.

A period of adjustment is definitely in order.

Except it’s the movie that takes some getting used to. The switch between moods—obvious comedy and sermonizing message—comes often, and clumsily. And although the film acknowledges the white-savior cliché—which Wahlberg’s character goofily describes in terms of Avatar—it still subscribes to it, with rich suburban folks presented as the only hope these Hispanic kids have.

There are some unexpected pleasures hidden among the supporting cast. Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer get a nice rhythm going as a tag-team of foster-care officials. Julie Hagerty is a ditsy grandma—was Airplane! really that long ago?—and don’t blink or you’ll miss Joan Cusack’s bit part as an equally daffy old neighbor.

And while, as the new dad, Mark Wahlberg basically sticks to his good-hearted, meathead-on-a-shtick routine, you can feel Rose Byrne pushing impatiently at the edges of her part, trying to find something darker and weirder in his wife. She sometimes gets it, too—with flashes of ugly anger or clueless selfishness—but it’s as if her characters from Neighbors or Bridesmaids wandered into some by-the-numbers family comedy. It’s fun but it’s also weirdly jarring.

Apart from Byrne’s performance, though, the only remarkable thing about the film is that it manages to waste the great Margo Martindale as Wahlberg’s mom. The child stars are forgettable (although as the angsty teen, Isabela Moner, who co-starred with Wahlberg in Transformers: The Last Knight, has one or two nice private moments). The soundtrack is safe, relaxed-fit classic rock. The plot “twists” could have been drawn with a ruler. Few of the jokes pay off in unexpected ways.

Honestly, it’s no fun picking on a movie that was obviously made for so many good reasons. But it’s even less fun sitting through it.