Overlong and comically broad, the Mexican-made “Instructions not Included”, a surprise late-summer box office hit, is still not without its charms. A Spanish-language (with subtitles) comic weeper about single parenting and the immigrant experience, it makes a fine showcase for Mexican co-writer/director/star Eugenio Derbez, who finally has his better-late-than-never introduction to American audience.
Derbez, who appeared in such English language dramedies as “Girl in Progress,” may be entirely too old (he’s over 50) to pull off the young Acapulco “player” whose dalliance with an American woman (Jessica Lindsey) leads to her dumping their baby girl on his bachelor pad doorstep. But he’s engaging enough, he clicks with the little girl and he’s quite adept at the slapstick that the movie uses to show that with kids, instructions really should be included.
Valentin womanizes his way through Acapulco, fighting off his fears — which his father, in flashbacks, told him were his “wolves” — such fears as commitment and growing up.
He has to face those fears when Julie (Lindsey) dumps a baby in his lap. He has only Julie’s old Los Angeles address and a single photo of her teaching an aerobics class to go on. And he has no clue how to cope with a baby.
The funniest scenes in the film involve his clumsiness — stuffing the baby in his shirt as he races his scooter to the airport, refusing to dive into diaper changing, relying on his goofy friends for advice.
“You’ll have to learn English, otherwise, when she starts talking, you won’t understand her.”
A cross-country trek, hitchhiking, gets him to the border and a friendly coyote smuggles him into the U.S. But getting to L.A. is not enough. Julie has disappeared, and not having a Green Card, the only work Valentin can stumble into is reckless movie stunt work.
A lovely montage covers the seven years that quickly pass. Valentin leans on little Maggie (Loreto Peralta) to translate for him on the set, to negotiate his deals, even. He cannot learn English after seven years in the U.S., but somehow, she has managed it.
And he tells her wonderful fairytales in the form of letters from her mother, letters he writes and which she illustrates, in her mind, in delightful 3-D animated interludes, felt cut-outs of trips to Africa, Australia or the moon.
“Instructions” lazily leans on the funny business that Valentin copes with on movie sets too much, with over-familiar character types peopling that part of the picture. The father/daughter home life stuff, living in a toy-filled loft, is more engaging.
And then the mom returns and the whole affair switches to a sort of Mexican vs. American “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
The kid’s adorable, and the flashbacks to the tough love Valentin received from his dad work comic wonders — hurling the kid off an Acapulco cliff, teaching him to be brave and not really succeeding.
Derbez manages some marvelous bits of business — using the baby’s bottom to squash a spider, another of Valentin’s phobias.
And the ending of the movie is a real grabber, the sort of thing that lifts and improves a tediously long and otherwise mediocre film and tricks you into thinking it was better than it really was as you leave the theater.
Sentimental in the extreme, “Instructions” doesn’t reinvent a very tired genre and the things Derbez skips past — the language barrier contrivance, the obviously high-mileage actor pretending to be a young swinger — hamper the film, too. At its best, it has a touch of Tyler Perry about it. At its worst, it reminded me of the many Bollywood “comedies” built around wild implausibilities, starring actors 25 years too old for their characters.
But it’s clever and inventive enough to suggest that Derbez could have a future north of the border, too.
(“Instructions” becomes the highest grossing Spanish language film in US history).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic elements and language
Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Karla Souza, Loreto Peralta, Daniel Raymont
Credits: Directed by Eugenio Derbez, written by Guillermo Ríos, Leticia López Margalli and Eugenio Derbez. A Pantelion release.
Running time: 2:00