Instant Family ***
Dir: Sean Anders. With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz. 118 mins. Cert: 12A
Director Sean Anders has parlayed whatever goodwill he earned making those Daddy’s Home knockabouts with Mark Wahlberg into filming a light-comic illustrated lecture on the ups and downs of adoption. On paper, Instant Family sounds unapproachably mawkish: Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie, a Californian couple circling 40 whose tentative exploration of fostering brings three Latino waifs across their well-ordered threshold. In fact, the worst anyone could say about the finished feature is that it plays a tad square when set against the alternative parenting models US TV now routinely depicts. Very sweet, funny when it needs to be, and evidently drawn from personal experience, it’s not unlike an update of those slickly packaged Lowell Ganz/Babaloo Mandel comedies (Parenthood, City Slickers) that were once in Hollywood vogue.
Within a workable framing gag – that puppyish Pete and overthinker Ellie have no clue what they’re doing – Anders sets about bypassing everybody’s expectations and prejudices. White saviour complexes are shot down, with reference to Avatar, by dream-team care workers Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer; Wahlberg and Byrne, all easy if frazzled chemistry, admit they want nothing more than for their just-installed charges to reach moving-out age. That settling-in period falls between cacophonous and exhausting, as it may well be, yet Anders treats the kids as distinct organisms with issues that require attention, and his casting suggests its own support network. Force-of-nature Margo Martindale and an unimprovably spacey Julie Hagerty provide valuable assists and energy boosts as overnight grannies in a rare American comedy that unabashedly loves its mothers, whatever form they might take.
It doesn’t look like much more than four episodes of a network sitcom bolted together, a midfilm montage to George Harrison’s “What is Life” serving as the height of its cinematic ambition. And the crucial matter of resources has been slyly smoothed over: whatever the chaos wrought there, contractor Pete and the apparently jobless Ellie are blessed with the most aspirational breakfast nook of any onscreen couple since Hidden’s Binoche-Auteuil pairing. (It’s a stroke of supreme movie fortune that their home should be as big as their hearts.) Yet if it can’t entirely banish the spectre of 12A-rated blandness from its doorstep, Instant Family retains the obvious appeal of watching basically nice people attempt a fundamentally decent thing for a few hours. The shamelessly optimistic finale may even leave you with something in your eye, dammit.
Instant Family is now playing in cinemas nationwide.