Let me first try to be nice to "Instant Family," a comedy-drama about foster care and adoption. The film's premise, "inspired by" co-writer/director Sean Anders' own family life as a husband and father, isn't a bad one for an innocuous family comedy with laughs and heart, a withering-to-wacky satire of misbegotten parenting, or a thoughtful, psychologically insightful look at the social work and family dynamics around adoption. But the tonal whiplash you'll get from the pileup crash of all three may have you wishing he picked a lane.
Mark Wahlberg plays Anders' surrogate Pete Wagner, and Rose Byrne his wife, Ellie. Together, they're a complacent team at home and at work flipping houses. But when Ellie gets an itch for children, it sends the couple on an adventure in foster parenting. Shepherded by a social-worker double act comprised of Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, the Wagners soon find themselves surrounded by prospective foster parents and active ones that can only be described as ridiculous caricatures. The lazy writing and directing that spawns the film's mostly tone-deaf attempts at humor undermine an otherwise sincere attempt to promote the wins of the foster-care system.
A running joke takes swipes at "The Blind Side" via a prospective foster mother who's solely interested in finding a soon-to-be-lucrative athletic talent to raise. That the social workers recognize this and repeatedly laugh it off instead of addressing it like responsible professionals leaves a sour taste in the mouth rather than scoring a sharp one-off gag. Since Pete and Ellie are destined to take home a trio of Latino siblings (Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, and Julianna Gamiz), Pete asks, "Is it a problem? The whole 'white savior' thing?" and rightly receives the answer that foster kids will take loving parents of any color, thank you very much. Shortly thereafter, Ellie defensively insists that she's not rich (in spite of her beautiful four-bedroom house) and later screams at her new teenage charge, "I am 1/8 Comanche!"
Pete and Ellie's default reaction to nearly everything is to fly off the handle, so when they stop long enough to breathe and reason out a solution, they seem like entirely different characters. Each has exactly one lick of common sense when it comes to parenting, and while a learning curve adheres to both realism and narrative formula, the imbalance of idiocy to trustworthiness here suggests these people can't be trusted with a pet rock, let alone three vulnerable underage human beings. In their comic desperation, it's not enough for Anders and co-writer John Morris to let Pete and Ellie make mistakes; they have to behave like overgrown children throwing tantrums every five minutes, including verbal and physical assaults of strangers (one a sex offender, one an innocent boy) before they even think of alerting appropriate authorities.
Oh yes, there's a sex offender. To go by the marketing, you would take "Instant Family" for a hip but wholesome domestic comedy akin to the long-running sitcom "Modern Family." But this PG-13-rated flick throws in an "f"-bomb or a subplot involving sex-criminal "dick pics" when it's not trying to warm your heart, so think twice before bringing your little ones. Only Notaro's dry delivery and some earnest dramatic scenes make "Instant Family" palatable. The rest of the time, everyone mistakes shrill annoyance for humor and the hateable for the relatable. Humor is subjective, of course, but the film offers this litmus test: Do you laugh when a sane adult finally slaps Ellie ("You listen to me, you crazy woman!") and when another slaps cuffs on Pete? Or do you cheer?