Neither families nor films behave like instant soup. One cannot simply combine the ingredients, stir, and expect a delicious outcome. Instant Family provides the evidence for this on both fronts.
A semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Sean Anders, Instant Family follows a couple in the months leading up to and just after they foster three siblings. Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are two perfectly content house-flippers who decide one day to explore the possibility of fostering and adopting children. Just like that. Were they actual people, one would expect them to put in much more thought and have lengthy discussions, but none of that happens here.
After undergoing an eight-week course, Pete and Ellie attend a matchmaking party put on by the city to get prospective parents and available kids mingling. When they meet a confident and sarcastic teenage girl named Lizzy (Isabela Moner), they decide to foster her and her younger two siblings. They meet them and have a quick playtime, but overall this process seems just as rushed and uncontemplated as the decision to adopt kids in the first place.
As you would expect, the transition from a childfree couple to a family of five has some bumps in the road. Teenagers rebel. Young kids yell and are picky eaters. Pre-teen boys are clumsy, with their rapidly growing bodies and such. None of the wrenches thrown at Ellie and Pete are at all unexpected, and yet they react as if they had no idea it would be so tough to adopt three kids at once. Add in the extra element of these particular kids coming from a very difficult birth family, and Pete and Ellie’s surprise is the real surprise here.
You’d think that with these adorable kids bonding with their new parents and getting into all sorts of hijinx that Instant Family would be either touching or funny, but none of the jokes or the emotions land. The ongoing shtick of Ellie putting her foot in her mouth, or Pete mistakenly injuring his new son, are worth a chuckle or two at first, but somewhere in the middle of the nearly two-hour running time you realize that no other jokes are coming. That’s all there is here. The exception to this is the two adoption counselors (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro). Their chemistry and verbal sparring are a welcome change to the cheap physical yucks or nervous talking problems.
Lacking either emotion or laughs, Instant Family feels more like a parenting manual than a family comedy. Parenting tips and generous pats on the back for adoptive families take up far more of the film than they should. It’s understandable at first, as Pete and Ellie are learning the ropes, but as the plot carries on it becomes clear that Instant Family is standing high on a soapbox. A noble soapbox, but a soapbox nonetheless.
This is not to poopoo on a film which is clearly speaking to an often forgotten or ignored form of family. Adoptive parents and their kids should be represented in contemporary cinema. They just deserve better than Instant Family.