Instant Family: a salute to a really special family movie

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The 2018 comedy Instant Family still flies under many people’s radars – here, Simon argues why it’s one of the best live action family movies in some time.

With no disrespect intended to either of them, from the outside looking in, a reunion of star Mark Wahlberg and director Sean Anders on a new feature wasn’t something that necessarily meant a film was coming worth clearing the diary for. The pair had joined forces previously on the two Daddy’s Home movies, comedies I can take or leave (although the second one has an excellent gag about a Christmas movie I’d love to see), and I confess I barely fluttered an eyelid when the Hollywood press announced a third collaboration.

Looking back, there were clear signs of extra promise. The casting of Rose Byrne certainly was a positive. The two Neighbors/Bad Neighbours movies offered her equal space with Seth Rogen to cause all sorts of mischief, and I think the resultant movies benefitted from that. Isabel Merced too had been landing roles in the Sicario sequel and one of Michael Bay’s Transformers blastathons, and was clearly an upcoming acting talent to be reckoned with.

Still, I’d suggest that few who walked through the door to see Instant Family when it landed in cinemas back in 2018 (early 2019 in the UK) reckoned they were going to get quite what they got.

It looked from the outside in like a solid Hollywood comedy. Actually, what Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris fashioned was something really rather special.

At the heart of Instant Family is the story of Rose Byrne’s Ellie and Mark Wahlberg’s Pete. I want to say up front too: both of them are excellent here.

When we meet them in this film, they’re a standard Hollywood couple, doing up houses, enjoying each other’s company, and facing external pressure to have a family – a conversation they’re not really addressing themselves.

The first sign with Instant Family that things are taking a slightly different turn come when the subject of adoption comes up. The silent unsaid is that this pair want children, but need some kind of social prodding to consider going down that path.

It’s worth noting too that to this stage too, the comedy is landing. The jokes really work, the performances are human and funny. I was surprised how quickly I was onside, even before the core plot kicked in.

I was unaware until afterwards – and I quickly looked it up – that this was a story from the heart for Sean Anders. That he was bringing to the screen a story based on events he and his family had gone through themselves.

His wife and he adopted three children in one go, and had themselves a complete family overnight. Skipping forward and going as spoiler light as possible, that’s what happens to Pete and Ellie. Isabel Merced’s Lizzy the eldest of them, with Gustavo Escobar and Julianna Gamiz playing her younger siblings. I remember when Christina Ricci broke through as a child actor in the first The Addams Family movie and rightly earned huge acclaim from the off for her work. I’d suggest whoever put together Merced, Escobar and Gamiz deserves similar acclaim. The casting here is really quite something.

What Anders and Morris manage to blend in their screenplay – I’ve watched the film many times and still think it’s almost miraculous they get away with it – is a heartbursting drama, that doesn’t shy away at all from the harder edges of adoption, and a terrific comedy.  A proper laugh out loud film (the recurring The Blind Side gag made me laugh more times than most Hollywood comedies alone), that’s far from the movie star vehicle it appears from the outside. The generosity of Wahlberg and Byrne in allowing themselves to step back and let others steal scenes deserves real credit.

So many performers have their own scene-stealing moments here, a proper ensemble at work.

A lot of Hollywood comedies are built – constructed, even – around the personalities of one or two leading actors it seems. Yet take Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (pictured above, the latter bringing the house down when offered a bit of pie) as a pair of social workers with humanity at their core. The both get sparkling lines, and some of the toughest moments of the film to deliver.

Margo Martindale is a flat-out blast as granny Sandy, an overbearing, loving and hugely entertaining relative. She’s wonderful.

And if you’re going to spend a bit extra on one more cameo, then bringing in Airplane!’s Julie Hagerty (pictured below) seems mighty wise to me. Throw in some spray paint too, watch her, and wonder why more people don’t cast her in films like this.

Mind you, it strikes me there aren’t that many features like this. Not really. Because what Instant Family has is heart in a mainstream film of this ilk that I’ve not seen since 1989’s Parenthood (a movie I genuinely consider something of a modern masterpiece). Both of those films manage to acutely capture the day to day of family life, both are very funny.

Crucially though, unlike ParenthoodInstant Family is a movie you can show your kids (the vibrator scene in the former, and the glorious “show him, honey” line in the former might take a bit of explaining to anklebiters).

It comes with a 12A certificate in the UK, so still needs a bit of guidance for younger children. That said, Marvel films carry a similar rating, and there aren’t many people in the school playground who haven’t seen those.

I’ve showed Instant Family to my own children lots of times. They’re huge fans as well.

I love that here’s an accessible feature that doesn’t shirk difficult conversation or sand the edges of them down. I think Mrs Doubtfire is a movie that had a few problems, but I love that in the early 90s it was a feature playing to families that tried to take the stigma off divorce. With Instant Family, the film shows – again, whilst making us laugh a lot – that families can be messy. That things don’t go to plan. That adoption isn’t straightforward. And that that’s okay.

Key to that is it gives all of the core invested characters here space and time. Testament to that are the sequences where we see the other families going through adoption. On paper, just background supporting characters bringing some added comedy. Yet Morris and Anders make them matter.

I sometimes think that a sign of a really good film is I could take more than a couple of characters and actively want to know more about them. Every angle on the story here – right down to Judge Martin T Rivas – has a reason for being. Every person’s actions – from the youngest child right back to that judge – are understandable even if we don’t like everything we do. Someone took the time to make sure that all this works, that – to paraphrase Eugene Levy when assessing Schitt’s Creek – the whole feature has “good bones”.

There’s a version of this film that Hollywood could make that doesn’t treat its audience as intelligently as Instant Family does. Or there’s a haunting drama to be made based around the same story. But Anders and his team do what comedy rarely gets proper credit for, and I’ll say it again: it makes a difficult subject accessible.


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Comedy doesn’t win awards very often. Oftentimes, given the subjective nature of it, it struggles to even get a fair hearing (and appreciating this article is a effectively a love letter to the film, I suppose I should still acknowledge somewhere that the comedy might not land for everyone. Don’t really want to though). Sure, we like jokes in our blockbusters.

But making a genuinely excellent comedy from top to bottom? Well, the fact that it’s so rare demonstrates just how difficult it is.

Instant Family is a film, then, that didn’t get five star reviews plastered all over its poster. Paramount sold it, understandably, primarily as Mark Wahlberg/Rose Byrne comedy, knowing that was its best chance of getting bum on seats. It pretty much worked too, with the film a modest hit on release. Just shy of $50m to make, a global gross of $120m. Reviews were mixed too. Phrases just as ‘well intentioned’, ‘heart in the right place’, stuff like that.

I’m no advocate of critics be damned – I’d hardly be helping myself if I did – but I think Instant Family is testament to how an audience can ultimately complete a film. I saw it twice in the cinema (back when such things were allowed), and it brought the house down both times, and left most of us with dust in our eyes.

What’s more, I get the sense now that word is properly spreading. That the film is on Netflix UK for a start, and straight away that helps its audience broaden more. Good. It deserves it. Films like this deserve to be seen. A rare marriage of being hugely entertaining, very funny, and having something really worthwhile to say.

And that ending? Well, I don’t want to spoil it. Just that the speech one authority character gives cuts me to my core. I started blubbing, and didn’t stop until long into the equally unmissable end credits. Boy, those end credits…

Don’t let anyone spoil this one for you if you’ve never seen it. I’ve tried not to spoil it. Do, if you can, what I did. Go in and expect a standard Hollywood comedy. The chances are, when you come out the other side of it, your expectations will have been significantly exceeded.

Mine certainly were. This one’s a gem.

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