Derbez likes a bit of salty with his sweet, and throws in not just a pinch, but a handful of salt right at the end, almost spoiling the pot.
Instructions Not Included
In Instructions Not Included‘s most heartwarming, gleeful moments, a father and his 6-year-old daughter (wearing matching, brightly colored pajamas that look ripped straight out of Yo Gabba Gabba) jump, play, tumble, and carelessly goof off together in their home, a loft space that’s somehow even more whimsical than their Saturday-morning-cartoon jammies. The high-ceiling play place is impossibly packed to the brim with instruments of fun—a giant indoor slide, inflatable pink dinosaurs (inflatable everything, really), a basketball hoop, bean bags, robots, and anything else you can dream up—and the father-daughter dynamic duo take full advantage, smiles all around. It’s an excessive children’s fantasy that eats Tom Hanks’ apartment from Big for breakfast. They’re having the time of their lives.
Moments like these (Instructions Not Included is full of them) are so sweet they’ll make your heart swell until it feels like it’ll burst—and then, suddenly, the film’s sobering, tragic, punch-in-the-face third act takes your happy heart, rips it out of your chest, and smashes it to smithereens. Roll credits.
Mexican television superstar Eugenio Derbez, known for his humor, throws a curveball in his feature directorial debut, a deceptively dramatic comedy. Great films engage the heart, and Derbez’s parable of fatherhood, trust, and overcoming fear achieves this through well-acted, tender scenes of affection. But the Latino star—who began working on the script 12 years ago—likes a bit of salty with his sweet, and throws in not just a pinch, but a handful of salt right at the end, almost spoiling the pot. It’s an ambitious play that’s not completely destructive—you can see what Derbez was going for, and most of the film’s moving parts (mainly the committed, excellent cast) work brilliantly.
Derbez (whose rubber face was made to look mischievous) plays Valentin, a panty-chasing bachelor in Mexico who, after a clever drop-and-run by a hippy-ish ex-fling (Jessica Lindsey), is left with a baby girl who’s purportedly his own. Valentin, who wants nothing less than to be a father (he’s having so much fun with the panties!), is forced to move to Los Angeles to start a new life with his blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Maggie. Skip to six year later and Valentin’s embraced fatherhood wholeheartedly, having a blast with Maggie (now played by the terrific Loreto Peralta) in their non-stop pajama party lifestyle, which he funds with his gig as a Hollywood stuntman (Looney Toons stunt gags abound.)
Derbez and Peralta are priceless together—they laugh and play constantly and yet speak to each other intelligently and with adult-like wit. You can see Derbez’s real-life love of parenthood in his eyes, and Peralta is enchanting, perceptive, and bright. Valentin refuses to speak English, so Maggie acts as his walking translator, which is insanely adorable (Peralta impressively speaks both English and Spanish perfectly.) Maggie has a wildly courageous spirit and inspires Valentin to perform feats of reckless bravery in her honor—despite his natural gutlessness—so that he can be (or at least look like) every bit the hero she believes he is.
Since she could read, Valentin has been giving Maggie fake, hilariously outlandish letters and postcards from her mother, Julie, who’s been out of the picture since she left her on Valentin’s doorstep. As far as Maggie knows, her mother has been fighting evil-doers, stopping floods, and saving lives around the globe (and beyond—during her school’s show-and-tell, she holds up a piece of cheese and claims her mom bought it for her from the moon.) Maggie’s bedroom wall is covered with “photos” of her mom palling around with the likes of Bono, a Mariachi band, and even Leonardo DiCaprio (Valentin only has one photo of Julie, which he’s hilariously recycled and pasted onto all of the sloppily doctored photos.)
Julie returns, bringing with her the truth and the thrust of the film’s drama. She engages Valentin in a bitter custody war, claiming that Maggie “has problems because she lives in a fantasy world.” Is the candy-colored, 24-hour-playtime lifestyle Valentin provides for Maggie a healthy one? Maybe not, but Valentin has his reasons, though he refuses to divulge them in court for some reason. Though Lindsey is the main source of conflict, she’s never completely vilified, which is crucial.
Instructions Not Included‘s humor, while effective, feels confused as to who it’s aimed at. The physical gags are unapologetically slapstick and cartoony. In one sequence, Derbez gets launched into a stone wall repeatedly like Wile E. Coyote. On the other hand, some of the jokes are undeniably raunchy, like when a sultry neighbor asks Valentin to help her with her “plumbing” in her apartment, and Maggie remarks that her “drain is always backing up.” It all just feels a little scattered and occasionally inappropriate, though I was admittedly laughing quite a bit, especially in the first half.
The script is funny and affecting, but begins teetering as the film gets progressively more dramatic and heavy. In the film’s last 15 minutes or so, there are some jarring twists and turns that, while successfully heartbreaking, feel abrupt and manipulative. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and the melodrama of it all is cloying. There are a lot of great messages here which Derbez delivers successfully, and they ultimately shine through Instructions Not Included‘s dark cloud of a finale. The way Maggie transforms Valentin from a scumbag beach bum to a loving, responsible father is a beautiful character arc that resonates nicely. If only I didn’t leave the film feeling so jerked around.