Review: Instant Family Nicely Balances Comedy and Heart

The cynical among us (you know who you are) will view a movie like Instant Family and think it’s some sort of propaganda material, encouraging selfish would-be parents to consider adopting or fostering children in a style similar to the way director/co-writer Sean Anders and his wife did a few years ago. Anders is the successful screenwriter and director of such works as Horrible Bosses 2, Sex Drive and, most relevant to this discussion, the two Daddy’s Home movies, both of which starred Mark Wahlberg and featured extended families (some might call them non-traditional families, but blended families are becoming far too common for such a narrow label).

Instant Family Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Co-written with John Morris, Instant Family is about couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), who decide that they are far too selfish to have kids but are curious about the foster-to-adopt process that is having a meet-and-greet event nearby. It's hosted by social workers played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who are such a funny, charming comedy team that I’d love to see them in other movies playing these same characters. The open house comes in conjunction with a very frank conversation between Pete and Ellie about how they are exactly the wrong people to be parents, but once the idea is embedded in their collective brain, they can’t help but consider the real possibility of taking in a child.

Again challenged to think outside the norm of taking in an newborn or younger child, Pete and Ellie begin to consider a teenager, who are considered the most difficult to place, partly because of the belief that they are too much trouble. Then they meet a sassy young lady named Lizzy (Isabela Moner, who was seen earlier this year in the Sicario sequel, as well as opposite Wahlberg in the last Transformers movie). As if they feel they have something to prove, the couple look into the possibility of bringing Lizzy into their home when they find out that she comes with two younger siblings, Juan and Lita (Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz). Lizzy’s situation is further complicated by her unwavering belief that the kids’ birth mother (a substance abuser who has been in and out of prison during their lifetime) will be back to take them home once and for all. Still, with all of that going against them, a new, tentative family is born.

For every slightly cheeseball moment in Instant Family, the movie also brings us face to face with the reality of suddenly having three kids to take care of, including one mature enough to defy these “pretend parents” with impunity. But the reality of the situation also allows for some sweet and humorous moments, much like real life, I’m guessing. Perhaps the most honest moment in the film involves pillow talk between Pete and Ellie about how much they hate these new kids and must return them immediately. I’m guessing even birth parents have those conversations, but it’s rare to see these most trying times put into a feel-good film about adoption. Quite regularly, the film shifts from more dramatic and tense moments to ones of comedy and charm, which again isn’t as jarring as you might think because it feels genuine.

With time and patience, Pete and Ellie each find ways to connect with their three new charges, and before long, bonds begin to form and emotions seal the deal. The movie introduces us to Pete’s mother (Margo Martindale), who immediately takes to her new grandkids, while Ellie’s parents (Julie Hagerty and Michael O’Keefe) are more shellshocked by the new situation but seem eager to be a part of it all, even if they don’t quite understand it. There’s even a very odd and funny sequence near the end of the film involving a neighbor (Joan Cusack), who saves a potentially disastrous situation from happening and doesn’t feel like stepping away once the crisis has been averted. You can always count on Joan Cusack to make things amusingly weird.

The three young actors are all remarkably well cast, with all of them avoiding the typical child-actor performances in favor of, in some cases, very real personality disturbances. It may seem like an easy role, but it’s nice seeing Wahlberg drop the tough-guy persona and just play a good husband and struggling father. We already know Byrne is an international treasure and not-so-secret weapon in the comedy world. She excels at playing the woman who wants the world to think she’s got it all together when in fact things are missing that she quietly wants to introduce into her life no matter the consequences. She embodies strength and vulnerability in a way that few actors do (just see her work in this year’s Juliet, Naked for recent proof of that). Instant Family may feel like a film you want to resist, but it’s heart and authenticity will likely win you over. If you’re not a hard-hearted bastard, that is.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.