Commercial Hollywood comedies about the glory and absurdity of modern family life tend to come in two flavors: earnest and wack job. If Will Ferrell had starred in “Instant Family,” a comedy about an attractive, childless, edging-into-middle-age couple who take in a brood of foster kids who prove to be more trouble than they look, the movie would have been an over-the-top synthetic farce crammed with masochistic dad jokes; even the hugs would have been yocks. But “Instant Family,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a happily married but vaguely saddened white-bread couple (they barely have a clue as to how much they need children!), who take a trio of Hispanic-American siblings under their untested wings, isn’t a zany obnoxious head conk of a movie.
It was directed, as well as co-written, by Sean Anders, who made “Daddy’s Home” and “Daddy’s Home 2” (which were that sort of movie), but this time Anders has mounted an autobiographical comedy based on his own experience of adoptive parenthood. He’s trying to tell an actual story of the trials and tribulations of raising children who come into your home fully formed. “Instant Family” may be our era’s equivalent of a movie like Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (1989), which came on as a comedy of parental angst ripped from experience but was, in fact, a tasteful sitcom. Yet there were moments of reality to it, and “Instant Family” has those as well. You could call it sentimental and glib and say that it was put through a processor, and you’d be right, but in its on-the-nose cookie-cutter way this slice-of-life pablum has a lite humanity.
Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) buy fixer-upper homes for a living, which they then renovate and flip. That’s where they get the notion to adopt some downtrodden children of their own, who they’ll proceed to “renovate.” (The idea also emerges from the 40ish Pete’s joke-but-he’s-not-quite-kidding about how he’s now entering his potential old-dad phase, so if they adopt a kid who’s older than an infant, Pete will have a head-start.)
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The scenes at the adoption agency set the movie on a witty course, because the other potential parents are infectiously amusing without being overly caricatured (they make up a kind of hostile support group), and the women who run the place, played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, are a pricelessly close-to-the-bone comedy team. Spencer, all level-headed compassion, does the set-up lines, while Notaro, like an updated version of Nancy Kulp’s Miss Hathaway on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” delivers the barbed nerd insults. At a meet-and-greet with potential adoptive children, Pete and Ellie can’t stop from making fools of themselves (especially when they mistake Notaro’s daughter for a maladjusted orphan), and this sets a theme in motion: These two want to succeed so badly at being exemplary parents — patient, idealistic, healing — that it’s that very desire that sets up disaster.
At first, when they bring home the poised but secretly troubled 16-year-old Lizzie (Isabela Moner), her sweet but stumblebum brother Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and their button-cute but lashing-out little sister Lita (Julianna Gamiz), in a mutual try-out period before potential adoption, they think they have nothing to do but get to know them and make their lives better. But things quickly fall apart. The movie plays off specific pitfalls of foster care, like the kids’ already entrenched eating habits, but it’s also a universal riff on what insanely difficult creatures children can truly be. They are, after all, little human beings. Why would they be anything less than a tangled unruly handful?
Wahlberg is at his most appealing here: cautious and befuddled but never quite hopelessly clueless, a dazed grown-up trying to make sense of why being a kid is so much harder than he remembers it. And Byrne’s Ellie is winsomely funny and relatable, hiding her raw terror behind a mask of avid-mom eagerness. The movie satirizes their desperation without breaking sympathy with them. And as we learn what’s really going on with their kids, its emotional landscape grows a little richer. The kids are in foster care because their own mother was too deep in her own problems to handle them. But she’s still their mother, and Joselin Reyes’ performance strikes a note of honest heartbreak. She tears at our sympathies, too.
The movie has montages, like a finally-getting-used-to-you one set to “What Is Life,” and dastardly antagonists, like a smooth perv high-school janitor (Nicholas Logan). It has winningly broad mother-in-law performances from Margo Martindale and Julie Hagerty, as well as goofy touching moments, like the way Pete or Ellie melt any time their kids call them “Mommy” or “Daddy.” There is also a fully felt performance from Isabela Moner, who makes Lizzie an expert liar who longs to walk on the wild side — in other words, a girl who’s a handful, but no more unreasonable than most teenagers. “Instant Family” is well-executed feel-good product, and since it’s the “smart” version of what it is, it’s likely to do less well commercially than the dumb version (e.g., “Daddy’s Home”). But it redefines family craziness as normal in a way that those who seek it out will gratefully relate to.