Director and co-writer Sean Anders based Instant Family on his personal experiences of fostering and later adopting a group of siblings, but that doesn’t mean that he and longtime co-writer John Morris ignored their instincts for loud, hacky comedy. Instead, they simply applied those instincts to equally broad sentiment and family bonding, making Instant Family a perfect case for remaining child-free.
That’s how husband-and-wife home renovators Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) are at the beginning of the movie, seemingly happy running their house-flipping business and letting Ellie’s sisters be the ones to pop out grandkids. But a stray remark in a moment of irritation makes them rethink their position, especially since they’re getting older and might not have much more time to make a decision. With that in mind, they embark on a journey to become foster parents, planning to foster and potentially adopt an older child, so that they aren’t senior citizens when their kid finally graduates from college.
They get more than they bargained for when they meet sassy teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), who doesn’t want to part from her younger siblings Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Suddenly they’re the parents of three rowdy kids who’ve been mistreated and shuffled from one foster home to another for most of their lives. That’s a lot for anyone to deal with, and Pete and Ellie are predictably overwhelmed at first, and then just as predictably end up forging a strong bond with the kids, right when external forces threaten to take them away.
By playing up the slapstick, sitcom-style aspects of foster parenting, Anders makes it tough to take his social message (most strongly expressed in the closing-credits statistics about fostering, and the montage of photos of real foster families) seriously. He also makes his characters into shrieking cartoons, so that both the parents and the kids are completely insufferable and unsympathetic, and their moments of bonding and joy are as unconvincing as the strained moments of wacky comedy.
Instant Family may be a little more subdued than Anders and Morris’ previous comedies (including Horrible Bosses 2 and the Daddy’s Home movies), but it’s still aggressive and manic, with plenty of unfunny, belabored running jokes (the filmmakers are inexplicably enamored with a recurring bit about a single mother in Pete and Ellie’s foster-parent support group trying to create a situation for herself that mimics the movie The Blind Side). Wahlberg gives a performance similar to his intense, overly committed dad in the Daddy’s Home series, and Byrne often matches his uncomfortably madcap energy. The kids come off more as Problem Child-style menaces than victims of circumstance, and their tragic back story remains vague enough to keep the movie’s tone light.
That means that there’s never enough weight to the drama, especially when the family’s hard-won harmony is challenged in the third act. Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer basically function as mouthpieces for the adoption establishment as a pair of infinitely patient caseworkers, showing up to move the story past any potentially troubling obstacles. As a tribute to the rewards of foster parenting and adoption, Instant Family feels more like a crass, calculated Hollywood product, despite its director’s best intentions.