Yet another iteration of a sentimental scenario that already was whiskery way back when Charlie Chaplin served as father figure for “The Kid,” “Instructions Not Included” is a sporadically amusing but unduly protracted dramedy that slowly — very slowly — devolves into a shameless tearjerker during its third act. Pic may prove popular with fans of Mexican TV actor/personality Eugenio Derbez, who directed and co-wrote it as a star-vehicle showcase. Even so, it’s questionable whether something so blandly formulaic will do much to expand that fan base.
It doesn’t help much that Derbez is less than entirely convincing in early scenes, playing his character, Valentin, as a roguish ladies’ man who compulsively loves ‘em and leaves ’em while cavorting in his native Acapulco. He’s a great deal more persuasive, here and elsewhere, as a borderline scaredy-cat who has never quite recovered from his father’s tough-love attempts to make him overcome even the most rational fears.
While dozing one morning alongside two scantily clad cuties, Valentin awakens to find an old flame, Julie (Jessica Lindsey), and her infant daughter outside his front door. She asks Valentin for cab fare, then turns over her baby for safekeeping while she rushes back downstairs to pay the driver. She doesn’t come back.
In short order, Valentin discovers that (a) he has been identified by Julie as the baby’s father, (b) she is returning to the U.S. to get on with her life, because she’s ill equipped for motherhood, and (c) he is unable to master such parenting fundamentals as bottle feeding and diaper changing. So he grabs the infant and hitches a ride to L.A., where he hopes to effect a mother-and-child reunion.
But his own paternal instincts take over when, once he spots the baby in danger of drowning in a hotel pool, he swallows his fears and jumps into the water from a window several floor above.
Fortunately, Valentin’s heroics are noted by Frank Ryan (Daniel Raymont), a less-than-reputable producer who hires Valentin as a stuntman — the job our hero continues to hold seven years later as the lengthy exposition ends, and the plot begins in earnest.
There is more than a hint of Jerry Lewis in Derbez’s portrayal of Valentin as an eccentric doting dad who seems scarcely more mature than Maggie (Loreto Peralta), his precocious young offspring. Father and daughter live in a toy-cluttered apartment that looks more like a playhouse than a family residence, and spend many of their off-hours lounging about in matching pajamas.
In many ways, Maggie is the more grown-up of the pair — she’s bilingual, while he never bothers to learn much English — but she’s easily fooled by Valentin’s fanciful tales about the noble causes and fantastical adventures that have kept her mother far away for years and years.
In this sort of story, of course, it’s only a matter of time before the errant mother really does reappear and, more important, begins a legal battle to regain custody of her child. What separates “Instructions Not Included” from predecessors like “Kramer vs. Kramer” is what might best be described as the pic’s sole contemporary touch: When Julie finally does show up — after overcoming what another character cryptically describes as “her addictions” — she is accompanied by a supportive significant other who happens to be a woman, Renee (Alessandra Rosaldo).
To their credit, Derbez and co-scripters Guillermo Rios and Leticia Lopez Margalli don’t play this plot development for too many cheap laughs. To their discredit, however, they spend rather too much time depicting Julie and (especially) Renee as villains of the piece, mostly to motivate a late plot turnabout that is quite unnecessary and, worse, a weak motivation to add another 15 minutes or so to the running time.
Derbez and Peralta develop a sweetly effective chemistry in their scenes together, and the relationship between their characters is even more affecting after some beans are spilled in the final scenes, and you start to view what might have seemed like odd behavior in an entirely new light. Unfortunately, the supporting players are all too often encouraged to overplay, with decidedly mixed results.
Tech values are mostly passable. In scenes meant to show Valentin at work in Hollywood action fare, however, the budgetary limitations are distractingly obvious.