It is an unfortunate paradox of the human experience that you can have your heart in the right place and still do a very bad thing. Such is the lot of “Instant Family,” a comedy about adoption that will no doubt be over-praised because of its subject matter. Yes, it’s good that a movie is bringing attention to the hundreds of thousands of kids in need of foster care. Yes, it’s good that a movie is portraying the system in a positive light. But this—this was not the way to do it.
“Instant Family” is the brainchild of Sean Anders, the comedy director behind tasteless duds like “That’s My Boy” and “Daddy’s Home 2”. He turned his signature vulgarity down a notch for “Instant Family” though, and for good reason: the movie is based on his own family. Anders and his wife decided to enter parenthood by adopting three biological siblings, which is certainly a commendable venture, and their journey is echoed in the plot of the film—except the parents are Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) instead of the Anders.
Instantly starting a family may be a rapid change, but it’s still a lot to cram into a two-hour movie. “Instant Family” is just as excited to meet the kids as Pete and Ellie are—in its impatience, it rockets through the fostering process at blistering speeds, not letting any emotional beat get its due time. One second, Pete and Ellie are a content couple; the next, they’re arguing about having kids. One second, adoption is an unrealistic option; the next, Pete and Ellie are at an adoption agency. The movie is paced so haphazardly that it feels like watching four fast-forwarded movies in a row.
As it turns out, getting it over with quickly is a mercy. For a movie with such a family-centric heart, it’s remarkably tone-deaf and distasteful. Take the scene in which Pete and Ellie attend an adoption agency’s informational session, for example: the scene kicks off with a racist joke, then ten seconds later there’s a sexist joke, then ten seconds later the whole room is crying to a heartfelt speech about sexual abuse. The jarring shifts between good and bad intentions are enough to give your brain whiplash.
This bizarre balancing act is somehow more offensive than a movie that’s just trying to be offensive. “Instant Family” tells a pleasant, sometimes touching story about fostering three kids—but it’s punctuated by moments of misogyny and violence that are nonchalantly tossed off as harmless jokes, and it leaves you no time to be appalled. The movie isn’t without its poignant moments, especially when Anders and his co-screenwriter acknowledge the hard truths about fostering and adoption. But Anders’ proclivity for crass comedy constantly undermines his movie’s good nature.
Even the redeeming qualities fall apart towards the end. Anders has said that he’s a sucker for a happy ending—there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s something wrong with slapping an unbelievably happy ending on a movie that deals with difficult issues. “Instant Family” touches on topics like the white savior complex and birth parents struggling with drug addiction, and then steamrolls over them with a saccharine ending. Its complete lack of tact and nuance makes family reunification seem like an obstacle: the white parents overcome it to reach their goal, and everything else is suffocated in the bow on top.
“Instant Family” offers a glimpse into bittersweet reality and then slams the door in your face with a jingle and a smile. As the movie barrels towards its simplistic finale, it trades the personal for the crowd-pleasing, leaving you with something hollow and soaked in sugar. An adoption reveal video filmed on an iPhone hits closer to home than this $48 million Hollywood production.