‘Instant Family’ review – serious message movie dressed in comedy clown shoes

Instant Family is corny and imperfectly formed – but it has heart and knows what it's talking about. That's more than enough to save it, says Graeme Virtue

Cast an eye over the marketing campaign for Instant Family and it gives off the same glossy cookie-cutter vibe as a dozen other commercially minded Hollywood comedies. If you had to guess from the poster of Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne beaming alongside a nonplussed trio of Latino kids, you might put money on it being the usual patchwork of shouting, slapstick and crammed-in pop culture references, all shot in an appealingly bright colour palette yet directed with apparent indifference.

Instant Family turns out to be all those things while also somehow being a deeply personal passion project. Director and co-writer Sean Anders, previously responsible for semi-hits like Horrible Bosses 2 and the Wahlberg-starring Daddy’s Home franchise, wielded whatever industry clout he had accrued to create an energetic comedy based on his and his wife’s life-upending experience of fostering three young children. Bizarrely, Anders is determined to both reveal the emotionally fraught nitty-gritty of fostering while simultaneously hitting as many zany comic beats as possible. The result is a serious-minded, often tear-jerking message movie dressed in oversize clown shoes. Despite – or perhaps because of – this manic central dissonance, it is by far the most memorable film of his career.

Wahlberg and Byrne play industrious property-flippers Pete and Ellie Wagner, an affluent couple belatedly coming round to the idea of being parents. Ellie is the uptight but empathetic visionary who – metaphor klaxon! – can see the potential within even the most unloved house. Pete is the hands-on contractor ready to bash a few walls through with a sledgehammer (which at least provides some explanation for his bulging biceps). The involvement of bankable bench-presser Wahlberg – here wearing such a pained expression that it seems like his furrowed forehead is developing its own six-pack – probably helped Instant Family get off the starting blocks. But Byrne is the standout, a gifted comic actor who selflessly gives some of the best reactions in the biz having been called upon to look gobsmacked or appalled at the antics of her doofus co-stars in everything from Bridesmaids to Bad Neighbours.

The involvement of bankable bench-presser Wahlberg probably helped Instant Family get off the starting blocks

Guiding them through the gauntlet of paperwork and preparation are conscientious, quip-throwing social workers Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro) but even after surviving the initial eight-week orientation, Ellie and Pete remain a little gun-shy. It takes a volatile Thanksgiving dinner with Ellie’s sceptical family to convince them to move ahead with fostering streetwise 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings, the nervy Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and button-cute Lita (Julianna Gamiz). If Ellie and Pete’s casual wealth means the new arrivals materially want for nothing, there are plenty of other problems ready to overwhelm the well-meaning but essentially clueless would-be parents, from trying to get the tantrum-prone Lita to eat something other than crisps to setting enforceable boundaries for a headstrong teen who has learned her independence the hard way. Moments of heartstring-tugging drama are followed or even overlapped by a barrage of jokes, making Instant Family a genuine rollercoaster experience. Yet the performances from any one of the kids – let alone all three at once – would melt even the hardest of hearts.

It is easy to imagine another treatment of Instant Family, one with all the off-colour gags and pratfalls stripped out, maybe shot on handheld with less familiar actors to better communicate the seriousness of the topic. But that version would be highly unlikely to get released in over 300 screens across the UK. The version of Instant Family that exists is overblown, sometimes jarring and often corny but for all its weird cocktail of earnestness and crassness, its heart is undoubtedly in the right place.

☆☆

Instant Family is in cinemas from February 14