ReelReviews #9: Instructions Not Included (2013)




As of the time of this writing, Instructions Not Included (2013) is highest grossing Mexican film in the United States. It surpassed the previous record holder, Pan’s Labyrinth, earlier this year. While I personally prefer Pan’s Labyrinth because I like fantasy films, I had to check out Instructions Not Included for myself to see if it lived up to the hype. My conclusion? It does.
Eugenio Derbez has been a Mexican film actor for many years, but this is first effort as a director. Derbez said he was inspired to make this film after he saw the Academy Award winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful, and he wanted to make a similar type of zany comedy film that “had a heart” and could make you cry as well as laugh. He appears to have succeeded at that goal.

The basic structure of the film is pretty much Three Men & a Baby (plus its sequel, Three Men & a Little Lady, and minus the other two men) meets Kramer vs. Kramer. That is, the film is about a swinger from Acapulco named Valentin. His life is completely changed one day when a former fling leaves a baby on his doorstep, and tells him that he is going to have to be the one to take care of their child. The baby girl eventually ages into a charming seven year old, but Valentin’s journey to raise her takes him through many unpredictable paths and he eventually becomes a Hollywood stuntman. Both their lives are changed once again when the birth mother returns, and eventually decides she wants to reclaim the child.

The plot doesn’t sound all that interesting, and I was on the fence myself when I sat down to watch this movie. Its not really my kind of film, and plenty of movies have come up with similar premises (A Simple Twist of Fate with Steve Martin as a single dad, for example, or the better known Big Daddy with Adam Sandler). The result has usually been something too sappy and sweet (in the case of the first example), or too obnoxious and silly (in the case of the second example).

Here, Eugenio Derbez creates the perfect balance. There are some hilarious scenes, and some really heartwarming and beautiful moments as well. Having been driven insane by an earlier film that kept switching back and forth from French to English (see my review on The Science of Sleep), I wasn’t keen on “Hollywood” being depicted by Mexican actors in this one. However, Instructions Not Included has a razor sharp screenplay and knows how to create fun situations from the language barrier. Although Derbez can speak English fluently in real life, his character in the film barely knows a word, and the film itself is perhaps 70-80% in Spanish and 20-30% in English. The added twist is that the mother of his baby is an American, so the little girl speaks English fluently and translates for her dad. This not only mirrors many real life situations with modern immigration in the United States, but it provides some key moments in the film and its one example where this Mexican film wouldn’t be the same if it was remade as a straight all-American comedy.

The film weaves through many twists and turns before it finally concludes with a very dramatic tearjerker ending. The fact I felt so moved emotionally by a film that mostly a silly comedy shows just how effective the film is at bringing its audience along for the ride. This, along with Pan’s Labyrinth, is a truly great cinematic experience that is probably overlooked by critics in favor of more “serious” artsy foreign films. Not only does that rob audiences of inspired films like this, but it also robs Mexico of having more directors and writers that create edgy films instead of the standard telenovela stuff that is prevalent in Latin America. No matter what your background, see Instructions Not Included. I think you’ll fall in love with it.

***½ out of ****


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