Instant Family


Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne get a little cuddle time in.

(2018) Family Comedy (ParamountMark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Tom Segura, Allyn Rachel, Brittney Rentschler, Jody Thompson, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Michael O’Keefe, Joan Cusack, Edson Gary Weeks, Kenneth Israel, Hampton Fluker, Randy Havens, Iliza Schlesinger. Directed by Sean Anders

 

Having been an instant Dad, coming into a family in which there were already children, I imagine I have a bit of a leg up on the adoption comedy Instant Family. In some ways, the movie tackles some serious issues with the foster care system and of dealing with kids who have been through the ringer. It also has some humor which can be charitably described as weak; on top of it you have an awful lot of cursing, a fair amount of which is done by the kids themselves. This is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.

Which is weird because writer-director Anders based the film on his own experiences adopting three Hispanic children, which is what childless Yuppie couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) do. They end up with problematic teen Lizzy (Moner) who still harbors hope of reuniting with her birth mother, her little brother Juan (Quiroz) who is as clumsy as any anxious kid is and whose first instinct is to always apologize profusely whether he’s responsible or not, and finally little Lita (Gamiz) who is a bundle of need and a volcano when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Trying to guide these prospective parents through the process are agency workers Karen (Spencer) and Sharon (Notaro), as well as Ellie’s introspective mom (Hagerty) and Pete’s bulldozer of a mom (Martindale). When the birth mom of the kids, who has a history of drug addiction, decides she wants her kids back, Pete and Ellie, who have at times regretted their decision, suddenly realize that they need these kids as much or more than they need them.

It’s definitely a movie with all the feels, the kind of thing that infuriates a whole lot of movie critics who hate being emotionally manipulated, but in all honesty, I think Instant Family comes to its emotional high and lows honestly. Wahlberg is at his most charming here, and he has a solid cast to back him up including Oscar winner Spencer, Notaro (one of the finest comedians of our time) and particularly Martindale who over the past decade has become one of the most reliable and interesting character actresses in Hollywood.

It’s a shame that there’s so much here that doesn’t work, from Isabelle Moner doing her best to channel Selena Gomez, to the somewhat lame humor which never quite hits the mark, to the script that doesn’t really rise above its own limitations. I think the movie would have been better served to try less to be light comedy and harder to be a bit more realistic about the pitfalls – and joys – of being a foster parent can be. It’s not quite a Hallmark Channel movie, but it needed a little more firm direction in terms of what it wanted to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably heartwarming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it safe by following established formulas and really doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual material, adult thematic material and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on the real-life experiences of director Sean Anders, who adopted three Hispanic kids.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blended
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Liz & Ray

Noelle


Passing Santa’s torch isn’t as easy as Tim Allen made it out to be.

(2019) Holiday Comedy (Disney PlusAnna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Hagerty, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Billy Eichner, Maceo Smedley, Diana Maria Riva, Anthony Konechny, Michael Gross, Billy Griffith, Aliza Vellani, Amital Marmorstein, Ron Funches, Gary Sekhon, Edwin Perez, Anna van Hooft, Sean Amsing, Steven Rudy, Jagen Johnson, Alvina August. Directed by Marc Lawrence

 

Whether you call him Santa Claus or Father Christmas, we have always had an idea of who and what St. Nicholas is. Jolly, red outfit, sleigh, mittens, a sack full of presents, generally a fun guy to be around.

In this new Christmas wannabe classic, the office of Santa has been handed down from father to son in the Kringle family for generations. Sadly, the old Santa has died, leaving his son Nick (Hader) as heir apparent. The problem is that Nick is much more suited to be a yoga instructor than Santa. He’s terrified of reindeer, claustrophobic in tight places (like chimneys) and can’t steer the sleigh to save his life. His sister Noelle (Kendrick) is much more adept at all these things; she also instantly understands every form of communication from American sign language to French. She also can tell by looking at any kid if they’ve been naughty or nice, and knows instinctively what present they want – in a bit of a running joke it’s usually an iPad.

With Christmas approaching, the pressure is on Nick to get his act together. When Noelle suggests he take a weekend trip to “somewhere sunny and warm,” he takes her up on it – only to decide he’s going to stay there and never return to the North Pole. Christmas is in serious jeopardy and everyone blames poor Noelle, going so far as to take away her Kringle family discount at the local hot chocolate bar and souvenir stores.

Stung, she heads to Phoenix where she thinks her brother might be, accompanied by an adorable CGI baby reindeer named Snowcone and a less adorable elf named Polly (MacLaine, who seems helplessly typecast in grouchy roles these days). Aided by a handsome private detective (Ben-Adir) who is spending his first Christmas as a single dad who is understandably not looking forward a Christmas separate from his son (Smedley) who is spending the holiday with his mom who has since remarried. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, a tech-oriented Kringle cousin (Eichner) is proposing changes that might just ruin Christmas forever if Noelle doesn’t find Nick and persuade him to put on the red coat and make his Christmas Eve run.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this. Most of the ideas it has have been horked from other films that are way better than this one (Da Queen characterized this as “a not funny Elf) like Arthur Christmas, f’rinstance. There is enough product placement in the movie to make an old capitalist’s heart warm and toasty, which might rub progressive sorts the wrong way but then again, when you think about it, Disney is essentially a massive product placement for itself.

That said, the movie isn’t without its high points. Kendrick is an engaging performer and nobody does adorable quite as well as she does except for maybe Amy Adams in her prime. On a personal note, I’m always up to see MacLaine in anything, even if I’d love to see her do something in which she doesn’t play a curmudgeon which seems to be all she’s cast as these days. Hader hits all the right comedy notes in his performance and the movie really hums along during his training sequence – had the movie continued more along those lines, this might have become the Christmas classic it so desperately wants to be.

The big problem here is that this feels very much like a Disney Channel film in all the most negative aspects of their programming. Insipid pop soundtrack, really groan-inducing Christmas-themed jokes (“Oh, my garland!”) and a plot that seems to be dumbed down so that even ten-year-olds are rolling their eyes. Of course, Noelle should be the replacement Santa; nobody who isn’t brain dead can figure that out.

The subplot of rethinking gender roles is probably not going to play well with the Fox News crowd (some of whom are already trolling reviews elsewhere) but it at least gives some food for thought in a meal otherwise full of empty calories.

REASONS TO SEE: Interesting subtext on gender roles.
REASONS TO AVOID: All the negatives of Disney Channel fare.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally intended for theatrical release, but Disney decided to put it on their brand-new streaming platform to give it additional value.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney+
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A New Christmas

The Story of Us


You mean...Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

You mean…Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

(1999) Romance (Universal) Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Julie Hagerty, Rita Wilson, Ken Lerner, Colleen Rennison, Jake Sandvig, Victor Raider-Wexler, Albert Hague, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, Red Buttons, Alan Zweibel, Art Evans, Lucy Webb, Paul Reiser, Marci Rosenberg, Bill Kirchenbauer, Jessie Nelson. Directed by Rob Reiner

Hollywood is a town built on ego. The stars, the producers, the directors, the studio execs all have heads so swelled they won’t fit into ordinary cars – that’s why they take limos everywhere. Hell, even the bicycle couriers got ‘tude.

Isn’t it funny, then, that with all that excess of self-worth, nobody will break Hollywood’s critical commandment: Thou Shalt End Happily (unless Thou Art Remaking Shakespeare). Sometimes, that formula gets in the way of a good movie.

The Story of Us chronicles a marriage in its final stages of dissolution, as Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a once-happy couple who can hardly be civil to one another for more than a few moments at a time. As their marriage crumbles, they try to figure out how they’re going to break it to their kids, who are away at camp. At the same time, they’re wondering where things went wrong.

Like so many Rob Reiner films (When Harry Met Sally most notably), both characters are likable enough to keep us interested, but flawed enough to be just like the people who surround us in Real Life. Although the focus here is on Willis, Pfeiffer’s character seemed more sympathetic to me. Thrust into the role of disciplinarian, pragmatist and organizer, Pfeiffer hates what she’s become (i.e. her own mother), but feels powerless to escape her situation. She takes out her rage on her husband, whom she blames for not lifting her burdens, or at least sharing them.

For his part he is bewildered by her behavior and is unable to sympathize, yearning for the happy-go-lucky woman he married. Neither one is able to see the other’s viewpoint, and therein lies their problem.

Willis followed one of his all-time career performance in The Sixth Sense with an outstanding effort here, his best romantic comedy work since his Moonlighting days. While Academy members have never really had Willis on their dance card, one wonders if they tended to view him as little more than Mr. Demi Moore, a label which hounded him when he was unable to match the success of the Die Hard film series throughout the ’90s. Then again, he’s generally played pretty much the same character with astonishing regularity with occasional diversions like The Jackal.

Viewers are bound to notice Rita Wilson, however. As Pfeiffer’s best friend (and wife to Willis’ best friend) she positively dominates the screen every time she’s on it. She is, as Da Queen put it, just like every woman’s best friend in real life. That is to say, brassy, catty, vulgar and supportive. It is no accident that most women who view the film howl at Wilson’s jokes while the men tend to squirm and scratched their receding hairlines perplexedly.

That Pfeiffer and Willis were both dealing with the breakup of their real-life relationships while The Story Of Us was filming undoubtedly gave both actors an additional wellspring of emotion from which to draw. A profound scene near the end of the movie when Willis at last sees himself through his wife’s eyes couldn’t help but get one wondering if he was thinking of Demi at that moment.

My biggest gripe with this movie is the denouement, which is forced and happens in such an unbelievable and predictable manner that it leaves you spitting out “Hollywood!” in a scornful tone at your empty popcorn bowl as you turn off your screen. We spend two hours exploring why the marriage is breaking up, but we never really understand what puts it back together again.

Pfeiffer and Willis are appealing, but it’s the realism of their characters that make this movie satisfying, until it’s shattered in the final reel. I still recommend it strongly, based on the performances and the depiction of a relationship that is not unlike those of friends and family. Not a bad date movie for a couple going through a bad patch.

WHY RENT THIS: Good chemistry between Willis and Pfeiffer. Extraordinary performance by Wilson. Realistic characters and situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE. Oh that Hollywood ending! Gaah!

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and some sexy stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The last full-length feature film for Red Buttons and Albert Hague.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A featurette on the locations the film was shot at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.9M on a $50M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jobs