Writer/director Sean Anders has made a nice little living for himself spotlighting dysfunctional families in his films, including 2013’s above-average We’re the Millersto the recent Daddy’s Home films (the first was decent, the second—awful). Anders continues that theme in the surprisingly worthwhile Instant Family, a tearjerk-omedy (is that a thing?) starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a family who adopt three Latino siblings into their upper-class whitebread world.
What starts out as a none-too-subtle advertisement for adoption and foster care gradually unfolds as a legit movie that’s both touching and funny. (Instant Family, we’re told, is inspired by a true story; Anders and his wife Beth adopted three kids themselves seven years ago.) It’s cut from the same cloth as the smarter films by John Hughes (i.e. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) and Judd Apatow (Funny People, This is 40)—deftly blending humor and heart into the complete package.
Wahlberg and Byrne are Pete and Ellie Wagner, a pair of house flippers (he’s the brawn, she’s the designer) who decide to look into adopting a kid. After a meeting with foster care counselors Sharon and Karen (a hilarious, scene-stealing Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer), they’re invited the couple to an adoption fair, where they see teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and are instantly intrigued. When the agency tells Pete and Ellie that Lizzy also has two younger siblings, the couple balks at first, but eventually—during a laugh-out-loud dinner scene with their extended family—the couple decides to go all-in, bringing all three kids into their home.
From there, we get a good helping of the ol’ new-parent tropes (child has tantrum/adult winds up covered in food, teenager walks out, etc), but Anders manages to keep things fresh throughout—a testament to both his own writing and to the solid work of his cast, particularly Byrne. A veteran second-fiddle (in everything from Bridesmaids to Spy to the Neighbors flicks), she finally gets a chance to stand on her own, and she absolutely hits it out of the park.
Even when a predictable third-act twist arrives, followed by the even-more-predictable resolution, Instant Family avoids feeling stale. There is enough bonafide hilarity bouncing off each moment of gut-wrenching drama to prevent the film from getting bogged down, either one way or the other. There was no shortage of opportunities for Instant Family to careen off the rails, devolving into goofy slapstick or a schmaltzy mess, but it confidently and brilliantly stays on track, and the result is one of the more surprisingly pleasant rides of the year.