If you want to get an idea of the sensibility of Instant Family, in which Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a married couple who fosters three sibling kids, just consider the judge seen at an adoption hearing late in the film: “I’m a giant cornball. I live for this stuff!”
Apparently, so do the makers of this movie, which I found not just sickeningly treacly and ridiculously emotionally manipulative, but oppressively corny. People sit around in a foster parents’ support group and laugh so excessively at each other’s objectively lame “quips” that the film basically becomes a parody of itself. And this specific thing happens not just once, but in several separate scenes.
Now, before I get too far into why I genuinely hated this movie — or, okay, most of it — I want to stop for a moment and acknowledge something in the spirit of fairness. Plenty of people will enjoy Instant Family, and perhaps not even understand my many issues with it. And really, that’s fine. Those people, and me — well, we’re just fundamentally different. But I can say this much for this film: it’s heart is in the right place. The two grandmothers are played by Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale; what’s not to love about that?
The casting is great all around, really. Wahlberg and Byrne make a lovely couple. The kids, a teenager with two younger siblings played respectively by Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz, are all quite wonderful. And how can you go wrong with Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as adoption agency representatives?
Well, in that last case, by saddling them with dialogue so cheese-dippy it borders on the idiotic. “Inspired by a true story” though it may be, Instant Family rarely rings true, mostly due to a script so contrived it may just cause your eyes to roll right out of your face and onto the theatre floor. And the editing isn’t much better — from the very start, every line of dialogue and every cut in each scene comes at such an unnatural pace there’s never any time for the story to breathe. It’s like plotting on crack.
Once married couple Pete and Ellie do meet these three kids and bring them home, things slow down a tad, although not by much — and the returns to the support group never get any less dumb. I wish I could better describe how truly hokey these scenes are. It’s as if director and co-writer Sean Anders’s life depended on it. Everything is heightened in a peculiar way, almost like it’s an example of wholesomeness on acid. Maybe it’s like alien body snatchers trying to act like good Midwestern Americans and trying a little too hard.
The thing that prevents me from hating Instant Family completely is that, in the end, it has an endearing sincerity — that heart I mentioned previously. Sure, it made me cry, and I found myself slightly resenting it for that: it’s arguable whether that was truly earned or I am just increasingly a sucker for this shit as I get older. Everything about this movie is cookie-cutter cutesiness to the point of nausea, except perhaps for the characters who make up the core family in the story. One wishes these same actors, and even these characters, could have been given better treatment in a completely different movie — one where everyone else around them acted like real humans.
To be certain, I know plenty of people I would happily tell they would enjoy this as a movie certainly suitable for their whole family. It has appropriate messaging and will be easily considered entertaining. What I get stuck on is how much more this movie could have been, what an endless waste of an opportunity it is in the end. What to some is harmless and funny, to me is pathologically silly. This is a movie that should treat all of its characters with respect, and while it does that for the main characters, every single peripheral character is rendered, on some level, a clown. It’s a creates a subtle but bizarre cognitive dissonance.
Some people will be able to take it. I was immensely relieved when it was over.