No one is sure what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he scribbled a note in his unfinished last manuscript that: “There are no second acts in American lives.” The critic Edmund Wilson, who cobbled together what Fitzgerald left behind as The Last Tycoon, never – as far as I know – explained what he thought the author meant, but it has ever since been taken as an expression of the star-making machinery in American life (the novel’s hero is named Stahr), especially in Hollywood, where people rise quickly from obscurity directly to fame and sometimes death. Monroe Stahr was based on Hollywood’s ultimate wunderkind, Irving Thalberg, the MGM producer who died at the age of 37. (Fitzgerald was 44 when he died.)
Mark Wahlberg is 47 – and may he live a hundred years! Mr. Wahlberg may be taken as a man according to the Fitzgerald formula: from a troubled youth of drugs (cocaine) and crime (attempted murder) to early success as a rap performer (Marky Mark) and underwear model (Calvin Klein) to movie stardom (47 films and counting) – all this failure and success before he was 25. He is also a devout, albeit liberal, Catholic. This may explain how he survived such a bad beginning.
How devout is he? Well, that’s between him and God, of course, but he recently described his thoroughly monkish daily routine, which begins at 2:30 AM, followed by half-an-hour of prayer, a couple of sessions of exercise, and – according to most sources – daily Mass. He goes to bed at 7:30 in the evening. As is often the case with people serious about fitness, he eats seven times a day – all according to schedule.
As his film career has progressed, his roles have come to be defined by mayhem and comedy: from The Departed to Shooter and from Daddy’s Home to, most recently, Instant Family.
Instant Family is a sweet, comedic movie about domestic mayhem. Mr. Wahlberg and his co-star, the Australian actress Rose Byrne, are convincing as an ambitious couple who come to realize that their childlessness makes their worldly success seem rather empty.
Because this is a movie about adoption, the tale of Pete and Ellie Wagner skips right over the possibility of kids got in the traditional manner, and pretty much straight away into an orientation session for potential foster parents, which is pretty much the predictable collection of cinematic stereotypes: the uptight Christians who just want to please Jesus; the sage-and-sensible homosexual men who joke that they’ve been trying to conceive but have been unable to. Then there’s the attractive dressed-in-black, blonde-and-single lady named October (Iliza Shlesinger), who says she wants a black teenager with athletic skills sufficient to get a Division I scholarship. Okay, she’s not so stereotypical. Surprisingly, October persists in the film to the end.
Anyway, the Wagners end up fostering three Latino kids: little explosive Lita (Julianna Gamiz), her older brother, klutzy and nervous Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and 16-year-old Lizzie, their big sis. Lizzie is played by Isabella Moner, who all but steals the film from Wahlberg and Byrne.
The younger kids present problems, but it’s Lizzie who is the biggest challenges, as how could she not? She’s a teenager.
I think you can guess what will happen. But what will not happen is any actual come-to-Jesus moment. Writer (with John Morris) and director Sean Anders has kept religion out of his film, although the Wagners sort of pray before a couple of meals. Thus: no priests or nuns, ministers or rabbis, but a gaggle of social workers from children’s services, principally in the persons of Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro), whose interplay is reminiscent of the clowns in Shakespeare. Except – that is – when the banter stops, and they get didactic.
If you’re considering fostering or adopting a child or two or three, see Instant Family, which Mr. Anders has based upon his own experience, and, apparently, he intends to school us all on the premises and procedures of the process.
Now you may be thinking: Who wants to see a didactic movie?
Well . . . I’ll embarrass myself by confessing (again) that I easily get teary-eyed. In this case, I was very happy to be alone at an early-afternoon screening on a school day. There’s a scene in Instant Family in which parents and kids are in a restaurant devouring a huge ice-cream sundae. Five spoons. That’s what much of the movie is like: sweet, sticky, syrupy. Also, clichéd and implausible. But it gets to you – effectively – because it’s about the struggle to trust and to find and define the limits of loving.
G.K.C. quipped that “a thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” Never is that truer than in parenting – of any kind and by anybody. Pete and Ellie “suck” at it – to use a word that pops up in a screenplay littered with an unnecessary amount of swearing – but Lita, Juan, and Lizzie need them and the Wagners need the kids, and expertise in family life (of parents and children) can come later – if it ever does. All families need faith, hope, and love, and the greatest . . . well, you know the rest.
Maybe you’d prefer The Grinch or Mary Poppins Returns. That’s fine, but for my money (which, by the by, was $12.40 for my senior ticket plus $3.00 for parking and no popcorn – New York prices!), Instant Family is the most emotionally satisfying movie your whole family will be likely to enjoy this Christmas.
The movie is rated PG-13, for the aforementioned curse words and for a very inappropriate flirtation between Lizzie and a high-school janitor. The cast includes Margo Martindale and Julie Haggerty as the mothers of Pete and Ellie and an odd walk-on (more like a wander-on) by Joan Cusack.