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Non-Review Review: Instant Family

The biggest issue with Instant Family is one of identity.

Is Instant Family best approached as a broad feel-good comedy that deals too glibly with serious and deeply affecting issues, or is it an earnest drama that too eagerly punctuates its heart-tugging beats with gags that play loudly the gallery? Instant Family never quite seems to work this out, bouncing quickly from one extreme to another without any sense of internal cohesion. Instant Family often seems unsure of the tone that it wants to hit, which means that it can never maintain a consistent tone for more than a scene or so.

Kids also make great human shields.

To be fair to Instant Family, it is possible to deftly balance the demands of comedy and drama. There are countless great films that balance on a knife-edge between the two extremes, most notably the work of directors like Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers. While there is obviously some debate about how skillfully they pull off this balance, it is also a key ingredient in contemporary Oscar contenders like Vice or Green Book. It is entirely possible for a film to make the audience both laugh out loud and cry softly at the same time. Pixar is very good at this.

The issue with Instant Family is one of speed and extremes, how much ground it tries to cover in navigating the space between funny and moving, and how quickly it tries to cross that space.

Family matters.

To be fair to Instant Family, the film fares well on the finer details. There is a lot to like about Instant Family, but most of it is lurking at the edge of the frame and just out of focus. It is heartening, for example, that this mass-market comedy finds room for older veteran female comic performers like Joan Cusack and Juliet Hagerty. Although Cusack’s scene is an example of those tonal issues, her comic timing remains superb. Similarly, Hagerty remains as gifted and expressive a physical comedian as ever, even decades removed from her work in Airplane!

Indeed, the best comic duo in Instant Family is not the credited leads played by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne. The breakout performers in Instant Family are Tig Notoro and Octavia Spencer, playing the foster agency representatives Karen and Sharon. Spencer and (in particular) Notoro have a significantly higher hit ratio than the rest of the cast when it comes to delivering punchlines, and transition well between their function as walking exposition and their role as comic relief. Notoro is a master of deadpan delivery.

Food for thought.

Perhaps related to this point, Instant Family also reflects the way in which socially progressive values are soaking through into broad mass-market comedies. Much like Blockers and Bad Neighbours 2 are both broad sex-positive grossout comedies, Instant Family embraces the “found family” philosophy that infused blockbusters as diverse as The Fast and the Furious and Guardians of the Galaxy. Instant Family is very narratively safe and conservative, but these sorts of big and broad comedies provide an interesting and accessible platform to these values.

Unfortunately, these fascinating little details cannot compensate for the fundamental issues with Instant Family. The movie suffers from a number of problems. Most obviously, it’s not consistently funny. Humour is, of course, inherently subjective. However, the issue with Instant Family is not so much in formulating its jokes as in articulating them. A large part of why Notoro and Spencer work much better than the rest of the cast is because they generally find a way to deliver the material that they have been given with a slight spin.

Not(oro) for nuthin’.

Instant Family falls into the increasingly common trap of naming rather than telling its joke. The best single gag in Instant Family comes early in the film, in a hilariously overt criticism of the movie The Blind Side. This joke hinges on acknowledging the cringe-worthy racial politics of The Blindside by playing them overtly and watching the characters react.  It’s a solid premise for a gag, and it’s interesting to see it in a film that likely shares a major audience overlap. Indeed, with the awards success of Green Book, the joke is also quite timely.

The only problem is that it is not enough to make the joke of itself and let the humour play out for the audience. Instead, Instant Family has to explain the joke with a direct reference to The Blind Side from one of the main characters. This is the sort of humour that crept into the mainstream with Family Guy, and reached its nadir with the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer movies. Instant Family is far from the worst offender, but it demonstrates how this approach inevitably kills the gag; it is not so much funny things happening as characters discussing funny things happening.

A lazy family sundae.

However, outside of the issues with the jokes not landing, Instant Family struggles with its rhythms, balancing the demand for earnest and uplifting family drama with the desire for goofy laughs. Instant Family desires to be taken relatively seriously as a story of a found family, of a married couple who adopt three children and try to navigate the demands of parenthood. However, it is also wary of being taken too seriously, and of ever seeming too sombre or too dour.

This is reflected in any number of narrative choices, such as a subplot that deals with the very real parental fear of sexting and predatory adults, but which devolves into a goofy farce with public humiliation and a runaway floor cleaner. Instant Family is willing to broach the issues, but immediately works to defuse any element of those issues that might make the audience seem uncomfortable or unsettled.

Room for improvement.

This problem occasionally manifests even within scenes. There are several points at which the film veers sharply from a punchline into a hefty emotional beat. There are moments when this almost works as a contrast, as a way of deliberately pulling the audience out of a joke to focus their attention on the real emotional stakes; a comic overreaction to the irony of an inspirational young foster kid checking herself into rehab (“are you kidding me?!”) is brought down to Earth with a shift (and justified) slap that refocuses attention on empathy and compassion.

However, the moments where this almost works are relatively few. The problem also frequently occurs in reverse, with a heartwarming emotional scene interrupted with a silly gag. One highly important character-driven sequence at the climax of the film is interrupted with constant cuts to an intrusive and goofy eavesdropper trying to work their way into the scene. It throws the emotional weight of the movie off-balance, and undercuts a lot of the film’s potential just as it seems to be gaining traction.

Fostering good will.

Even within the movie’s dramatic beats, there is an awkwardness. Instant Family is told from the perspective of its two adult protagonists, played by Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne. Neither actor is given a fully-fleshed-out character, largely playing to their own strengths as performers. However, Instant Family invests much more heavily in the perspectives of its parent than it does in the foster children that they raise. Instant Family devotes a lot of time to two-character scenes between the adults alone, but rarely makes room to allow the three young siblings to interact alone.

There is something uncomfortable in this, given the relative comfort and stability of the foster parents in comparison to the children in their care. For the parents, this is an experiment, and an almost casual one. A lot of early comedy is devoted to how quickly this married couple chose to take in foster care, and how quickly they have three kids thrust upon them. If this thing doesn’t work out, these two adults will likely go back to their successful business “flipping” houses and might actually have a proper long-term conversation about whether they actually want kids.

Family time!

In contrast, the stakes are much higher for the children. If this does not work out, the children will likely go back to being bounced around foster care with neglectful and abusive families. As one character helpfully points out, these years will have a profound impact on the rest of their lives. Instant Family seems to realise this. When the foster parents try to stand up in court to read an emotive statement about their feelings, the judge stops them. “This is not about you,” he warns them, and they sit down. He is entirely correct.

Unfortunately, Instant Family acknowledges this without actually weaving it into the script. This is undoubtedly a result of the simple realities of movie production; Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are the stars of Instant Family, not Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz. Nevertheless, the big accomplishments in Instant Family are all measured relative to the two adults; whether their foster children call them “mom” and “dad”, whether the eldest daughter lets them in, whether they actually want to do this.

Mother of all problems.

Instant Family gets away with this more than it might, simply because of how earnestly it approaches the dynamic. Outside of one ill-judged (and tin-eared) scene of late-night whining, it is clear that these adults genuinely care about their kids. The movie repeatedly and awkwardly positions the decision to foster as something close to the self-help actualisation that informs so many studio comedies from Game Night to Tag, but it also takes care to avoid painting its protagonists as Apatowian adult-children like those in Neighbours or Ted. It’s a delicate balance.

Instant Family has its heart in the right place, but it doesn’t have its head quite screwed on right.

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