Instant Family: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne's pleasingly sharp, enjoyable comedy

Instant Family is now screening.

Instant Family (M, 117 mins) Directed by Sean Anders ★★★★

Mark Wahlberg in a comedy about adoption? Nope, I wasn't expecting a lot more than a retread of Wahlberg's Daddy's Home series either, with maybe a few hugs and life-lessons to round out the running time after the usual cavalcade of sight gags and groaningly obvious and ruinously predictable comedy fall-backs.

And then, just to keep me on my toes for the early part of 2019, a pretty good and occasionally quite tough minded little gem comes whistling out of the projector. I love it when that happens.

Instant Family truly has got disposable dross written all over it. Wahlberg is fine when he's doing his Matt-Damon-by-Pam's routine in a succession of mostly OK-ish action thrillers. But as a comedic leading man, Wahlberg usually just seems a bit too intense and insecure to ever really land a gag. Instant Family trades on that exact quality, perfectly.

Instant Family trades on Mark Wahlberg's intensity and insecurities when it comes to landing a gag.
Instant Family trades on Mark Wahlberg's intensity and insecurities when it comes to landing a gag.

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Mark Wahlberg stars opposite Rose Byrne in Instant Family.

Wahlberg and Rose Byrne (The Internship) are Pete and Ellie. They're married, making a living by restoring and flipping houses, and wondering just what to do with their lives once the TV is turned off for the night. 

Adopting a trio of troubled kids seems like a less-than-obvious solution. But hey, they already have a dog.

Into semi-prosperous suburban bliss come teenager Lizzie (played by Isabela Moner, who starred with Wahlberg in Transformers: The Last Knight. She is superb here.) and her two younger siblings. Birth Mum is a meth addict and Pete's inquiry as to the Dad is met with weary and derisive laughter. 

What follows is an enjoyable and often pleasingly sharp film.

Instant Family hits the expected gags, but also finds a fine balance between the saccharine and the salty. Enough so that when the film's rom-com instincts do overwhelm the sometimes nettlesome drama that Instant Family occasionally needs to be, the effect is quite jarring. 

Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne.
Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne.

Writer/director Sean Anders (yes, the Daddy's Home series is his) wrote Instant Family partly from his own family story. It shows. There are some unfakeable moments here, as well as some dialogue – Wahlberg's "I don't want to be like the white guy in Avatar" monologue is inspired – that sounds far too odd to not be authentic.

In support, Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) and Tig Notaro (Dog Days) steal every scene they get as the family's case officers. 

At it's best, Instant Family is a likeable and admirable film. And at its worst,  it's still a lot better than the film I was half-expecting to see. Bravo.