by Ken B.
The great British director Stephen Daldry once said something I didn’t quite like when I first heard it. He noted that when showing one of his films to test audiences, he observed how they would go along with it, enraptured by the plot and characters at every plot point. Then critics would see it, and write about how foreseeable and pointless a lot of those same elements were. He concluded that “regular” people were a far more accurate reading over the success of that film than critical impressions. At first, I dismissed this as another filmmaker slighting critics because they weren’t all writing the raves he thought he deserved. However, after watching more movies like Instructions Not Included, I sort of understand where’s he’s coming from. This is certainly a movie that works better if you haven’t seen too many movies. If you have, it may come off as overcooked, mawkish, and manipulative, and the heart and soul hidden behind the storytelling problems will be lost.
Eugenio Derbez directs, co-writes, and stars as Valentín, a man living in Acapulco. His father Juan “Johnny” Bravo (Hugo Stiglitz) spent his son’s childhood attempting to expunge every fear from him. In adulthood, Valentín says that one remains: commitment. Indeed, he leads a relaxed and loose lifestyle at the start of the film, with the film’s press notes declaring him “Acapulco’s resident playboy”. However, this comes to a halt when one day, an American woman named Julie (Jessica Lindsey) from some twenty months ago comes back to Valentín’s apartment with a baby named Maggie. It is his, she declares, and she boards a plane back to Los Angeles, leaving the infant in his care. Valentín hitchhikes across the border, but is unable to find her. In the process, an odd turn of events leads to him getting a job as a Hollywood stuntman. The film tracks him and Maggie’s (Loreto Peralta) life for the next six years, before Julie returns to the family. As one may expect, complications ensue.
Derbez is a TV star in Mexico, and here he makes his debut both as a director and as a lead in a film released in English speaking markets. As the main character, his performance is sympathetic, but not particularly memorable. Perlta, on the other hand, is far better. She talks in both English and Spanish (the character is also Valentín’s translator, as he does not know how to speak English), and must show a range of emotions throughout the course of the film. The supporting cast members also adequately fill their roles. No one there is particularly great or bad, with a range of eccentric characters around to advance the plot and keep things interesting.
Instructions Not Included is 122 minutes, and for the most part, it would appear that the film moves at a clear pace. However, the last act is where things start to come apart, and this is where that “manipulative” part that I mentioned at the top of the review starts to come in. Along with slowing down considerably, Instructions Not Included shamelessly begins attempting to squeeze tears out of you with tearjerking moment after tearjerking moment, complete with overdone shots of sunsets, clouds, and sandy beaches as its entire visual palate in the final moments. It doesn’t help the movie’s case that a swelling (but sometimes admittedly endearing) piano score from Carlo Silotto wavers throughout these elements.
Yet there’s something to be said about the fact that the rest of the movie is reasonably well done. It’s funny, appealing, colorful, and generally entertaining. You grow to care about the characters, and it becomes a shame that their conflicts are dealt with so unrealistically and carelessly at the end. There are sufficient levels of skill and good intentions in Instructions Not Included that the movie builds a bit of a cushion against the conclusion, keeping it from harming the movie more severely than if the first two acts had just been mediocre.
Instructions Not Included is ultimately good enough that the average viewer will not be deeply affected by the errors the film takes in its plot towards the end. Perhaps three stars is overly generous, you say. I will respond by saying that this movie, in the quest to create sympathetic characters and a complete story, did so satisfactorily. While it is not perfect, Instructions Not Included still provides a good mix of comedy and drama, an overall well made film from talented enough people.