From “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon,” to “Patriot’s Day” and “The Perfect Storm,” Mark Wahlberg devoted the last decade of his career to a hoo-rah brand of heroic nonfiction (it’s always tempting to trace this career pivot back to the actor’s useless claim that he could have stopped the hijackers on 9/11). But the 47-year-old star, ever the savvy businessman, has also hit upon a lucrative side hustle: blockbuster comedies. Low-key funny in earlier films like “Date Night” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Wahlberg parlayed that aspect of his persona into mega-hits like “Ted,” “Ted 2,” “Daddy’s Home,” and — wait for it — “Daddy’s Home 2” (Mel Gibson’s back, and he’s learned the true meaning of Christmas!).
In hindsight, it was a matter of time before the actor decided to mesh his two favorite modes into a single movie: A broad comedy about Mark Wahlberg rescuing people from a real-life hardship. Yikes. While that prospect sounds terrifying on paper, not since “The Fighter” or “Boogie Nights” has Wahlberg told a true (or true-ish) story with such a clear sense of purpose. That the film is occasionally funny — and perforated by a scene-stealing performance from the brilliant Rose Byrne — is just icing on the cake.
“Instant Family” finds Wahlberg reteaming with “Daddy’s Home” auteur Sean Anders, and this sweet holiday confection is based on the writer-director’s personal experience with adoption. As Anders explains in the unusual video message that preceded the press screenings (and will likely play before the movie in theaters), it all started when he and his wife talked about being too old to have a baby. Anders joked about how great it would be if they could make up for lost time by starting with a five-year-old.
Cut to: He and his wife met a child, discovered the kid had two young siblings, and became the overwhelmed parents of three pre-teens overnight. Anders knew his story offered enough love and madness to support a big studio movie, even if it’s not the kind of movie that big studios really make anymore.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent, ages have been adjusted to maximize the drama, and some very sitcom-esque jokes prevent the audience from wondering if they’ve stumbled into a sensitive indie dramedy by mistake. A glossy movie that has all the edginess of a network TV pilot, “Instant Family” is essentially true to Anders’ experience. Wahlberg plays director proxy Pete, although “plays” might be a generous term for a performance that — per the actor’s usual custom — mostly consists of the muscular alpha male trying to look dominant and panicked at the same time.
Pete and his wife Ellie (Byrne, a brilliant foil even when the script doesn’t give her much to work with) flip houses for a living, and spend a lot of energy trying to avoid the feeling that they don’t have a family large enough to fill one of them. When Pete and Ellie hit upon the idea of adoption, a quick look at the adorable faces on the local foster website is all it takes. “We don’t even volunteer on a holiday!” Pete rationalizes, but the need to become a better person is always baked into the process of raising a good one. The next thing they know, Pete and Ellie are a few weeks deep into a foster training program led by Karen and Sharon (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro), who balance each other with a weird kind of bureaucratic warmth.
To keep things silly enough to subdue MAGA types who might explode at the thought of a mixed-race family, comedian Iliza Shlesinger shows up as a hoity woman named October whose explicit intention is to adopt a strong black kid and cos-play “The Blind Side.” Better suited to an “SNL” sketch than a sincere feature about the value of foster care and the eternal possibility of finding a home, this misguided character crystallizes the nagging sense that Anders film is constantly trying to hide its inherent virtue, like a vitamin coated in too much sugar. It’s always better when it forgets to be funny.
Fortunately, “Instant Family” is a bit more sure of itself on the home front. Taking a page from the “Mrs. Doubtfire” playbook, Anders hits on a drama-friendly dynamic for the adopted siblings. Lizzie (17-year-old Broadway vet and potential breakout star Isabela Moner) is the oldest. A tempestuous teen whose angsty rebellion covers a fierce protective streak, she’s essentially the ambassador between her two younger siblings — a traumatized boy named Juan (Gustavo Quiroz, whose performance is 90 percent pratfalls) and an adorable toddler named Lita (Julianna Gamiz) — and their clueless new parents.
For the kids, this is just another stop on the heartbreaking merry-go-round they’ve been on since their drug-addicted mother went to jail; for Pete and Ellie, this is the adventure of a lifetime. Moner’s nuanced and vital performance drills into the space between those two perspectives. There’s a language gap, a class gap, and the stakes are radically different for both parties. It’s almost inevitable that Lizzie eventually snaps: “You’re just another white lady who wants to adopt charity orphans to feel good about yourself!”
To Anders’ credit, the doesn’t pretend as though she’s entirely wrong; “Instant Family” is no mere apologia for its director’s own adoption story. Likewise, the movie never becomes a straight-up advertisement for the foster system. The inevitable happy ending doesn’t promise everything will just take care of itself once the credits roll, but that someone will be there to see the kids through the inevitable hard times. Never as hackneyed as it is heartfelt, “Instant Family” takes the stuff of real life and turns it into a touching reminder of what love can do for the people who need it.
Paramount will release “Instant Family” in theaters November 16.