Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Instant Family is a likable, feel-good comedy, perfect for the holiday season. It stars Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a couple who decide to take in a foster child and end up with three kids. It is funny, with drama that comes off as realistic, though maybe softened a bit for Hollywood purposes. It never pretends that trying to turn two separate families into one is simple and rarely goes for the easy laugh. It also has an appealing cast that helps it past some mild rough spots. This is one of those projects that sounds maudlin on paper but, in execution, is a charming piece of entertainment.
Pete and Ellie are a happily married couple who feel like something is missing from their lives. After a conversation about having kids, they eventually choose to adopt from the foster system instead. While they are looking for someone young, they meet Lizzy, a smart, guarded, sarcastic teenager. They are immediately intrigued by her and take her in, along with her younger siblings, Juan and Lita. What follows is some of the fish-out-of-water shenanigans and heart-tugging sweetness you would expect, though it is a little more honest than that.
Every time it seems Instant Family is destined to fall into cliché family comedy traps, a surprising slice of reality makes its way in. Director/co-writer Sean Anders adopted from the foster system himself and does not let his movie present it as a tidy, fairy-tale experience. These are kids whose mother is an addict who has been in and out of prison for the last several years. They have been left to fend for themselves with foster parents who obviously do not care about them. There is no sense Pete and Ellie can “save” them. What they can do is give them love, support and a real home.
There is a scene early on where a foster success story speaks to the class they are taking. She gives a speech that is moving initially and is given even more depth when her full story is learned later on. Things like that keep the movie grounded and effective.
Wahlberg and Byrne bring a solid balance of comedy and drama to the lead roles. They are able to inject humor into serious moments without undermining them. Isabela Moner’s Lizzy is a fairly typical movie teenager on the surface, however she implies a deep hurt motivating her behavior. The little ones, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz are mainly used for their cuteness, but they are really cute. As the foster care employees, Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro show sympathy and great comic timing. Nobody leans too hard toward the comedy or the drama, thus allowing them to sit comfortably together.
Instant Family (113 minutes, minus the end credits) is enjoyable, with a heart-warming message. It is a nice family movie that feels relatively truthful about this process. It is slightly long and repetitive with a couple of story beats that just did not work for me. But, overall, it is a good time that is as fitting a definition of crowd-pleaser as I can come up with.
3½ out 5
Mark Wahlberg as Pete
Rose Byrne as Ellie
Isabela Moner as Lizzy
Gustavo Quiroz as Juan
Julianna Gamiz as Lita
Octavia Spencer as Karen
Tig Notaro as Sharon
Margo Martindale as Grandma Sandy
Julie Hagerty as Jan
Directed by Sean Anders
Written by Sean Anders and John Morris