This year has blessed us with a beautiful film about a longtime childless couple who suddenly find themselves grappling with the prospect of parenthood. That movie, of course, is Private Life, a comedy-drama featuring deft, touching performances from Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, which came out on Netflix last month. You should watch that instead of Instant Family, which is superficially similar and equally heartfelt but not nearly as insightful or hilarious.
Director Sean Anders — the director of Daddy’s Home and co-writer of We’re the Millers — has celebrated so-called unconventional and fractured families, wringing laughs from the insecurities that can develop in the wake of divorce and remarriage. (What was so clever about We’re the Millers was that Jason Sudeikis’ criminal crew pretended to be close-knit kin — and ended up being far more functional than anyone around them.)
Anders drew from his own life for this laugh-through-your-sobs story: He and his wife adopted three siblings through foster care, which is the same scenario that befalls the film’s affluent couple, Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner. Overcome with do-gooder spirit, the duo decide to take in surly teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), as well as her younger brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz). The Wagners flip houses for a living, and so they flatter themselves by viewing these adoptions as a kind of spiritual renovation, bravely rescuing troubled children and giving them a better life. The word “hero” gets thrown around far too often, but Pete and Ellie wouldn’t object if you labeled them as such.
Instant Family’s early stretches are its strongest as Anders — who co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator John Morris — balances genuine sentiment with a slightly satiric tone, mocking the newbie parents’ self-satisfaction by assaulting them with the cold reality of childrearing. (For example, Juan is a klutz who’s never far removed from his next emergency-room visit; Lita won’t eat anything other than potato chips and she needs them now, etc.) Byrne, a comic master who remains underrated, is especially good in communicating growing frustration: Why won’t these damn kids realize how lucky they are to have such a wonderful mother? The Wagners are forced to check their privilege while the film outlines the sometimes inexplicable processes involved with navigating the foster-care system; Pete and Ellie meet the siblings through a discomforting “adoption fare” that’s not significantly different from picking a stray dog from the pound. Such specificity gives the movie its ring of truth as well as a decent supply of laughs, acknowledging how awkward this strange arranged marriage (a rose by any other name …) is for both the adults and the children.
Alas, Instant Family‘s penchant for broad jokes and formulaic resolutions undercut any good intentions. We get a hint early on that we’ll eventually get to some tear-jerking melodrama — the children’s birth mother has to show up at some point, right? — but the whole shebang is too saccharine to elicit the desired emotional response. Plus, the screenplay dodges the thornier question of who these kids’ “real” parents are by offering a cheap narrative cop-out at the end.
There’s no question this subject matter is personal for Anders — and with an ace supporting cast that includes Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as social workers, the movie’s often likable even when it’s not especially good. Still, it’s a shame that Instant Family reduces the complexity, pain and joy of parenthood to a multiplex-palatable family comedy. The real story is probably far more interesting … and hopefully funnier.