What it's about:
After a former one-night-stand drops off his baby daughter at his door, Valentin heads off to America to find her but ends up creating a new life for himself and his child.
What we thought:
Instructions Not Included is apparently the highest grossing Spanish-language film of all time in America and it's not that hard to see why. For a start, about a third of the film is actually in English so, presumably, that helped increase its accessibility but considering how familiar and comforting its story is, it doesn't really need much help as far as that goes.
Indeed, while there is an absolute fortune to like about this wonderfully charming little story, it's hardly overflowing with originality and it's certainly not afraid of wearing both its sentimentality and its cliches on its sleeve. It's presumably going to show exclusively at art cinemas but this isn't exactly a Pan's Labyrinth or an Y Tu Mama Tambien. It's a good, solid little dramedy but it is the very definition of mainstream. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. Hell, it's nice to get the occasional foreign language film that isn't aimed chiefly at “high brow” audiences.
At its core, Instructions Not Included is a simple story about the relationship between a father and a daughter (his daughter, to be exact) but the reason why it works as well as it does is because of the great characterization of both our leading characters. It has a surprising amount of twists for this sort of thing and its script is certainly witty enough but the main reason it easily transcends its perhaps overly familiar set up and its occasional tonal inconsistencies, is that you simply enjoy spending time with the quirky Valentin (Eugenio Derbez, who also directs the film) and his precocious, yet endearingly innocent daughter, Maggie (Loreto Peralta).
Valentin starts off the film as a bit of a cad, whose ability to get seemingly every woman he meets into bed does seem to be a bit of a stretch since he is, when you get right down to it, a bit of a bum, but, as you may expect his life changes quite considerably when the responsibility of raising a daughter is unexpectedly thrust upon him. Interestingly though, while he is willing to do anything for his daughter – a fact that somehow launches him into a quite lucrative career as a top Hollywood stuntman – he's never what anyone would consider a conventional father.
Not only does Valentin spoil his daughter and sees nothing at all wrong with that (and, to be fair, there is actually very little bratty about Maggie) he creates a fantasy world around her by sending her fake letters from her loving, Lara-Croft-like (or Indiana-Jones-like, even) mother who is always only one great adventure away from returning home. When Maggie's mother does actually return to her life, however, things get quite unsurprisingly complicated.
The film explores what it means to be a “good father”, the role that imagination plays in a child's development and whether it is correct to shield a child from the harsh realities of life – an idea that reaches a head in the film's emotionally climactic final act. It is not, however, any sort of intellectual treatise but is rather a big hearted, effortlessly warm story that is not afraid to tug on the heartstrings every bit as often as it tickles the funny bone. It has good performances, terrific characters and a nicely wry script. Admittedly, things do occasionally get away from Derbez as he tries to cram a lot into the film's luxurious 115-minute running-time but any flaws the film has are largely made up for by its unabashed humanity.
It ain't a masterpiece but it's well worth checking out.
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