Instructions Not Included (2013) / Comedy-Drama
aka No se Aceptan Devoluciones
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic elements and language
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Loreto Peralta, Jessica Lindsey, Daniel Raymont, Alessandra Rosaldo, Hugo Stiglitz, Sammy Perez, Arcelia Ramirez
Director: Eugenio Derbez
Screenplay: Guillermo Rios, Leticia Lopez Margalli, Eugenio Derbez
Review published September 5, 2013
Popular Mexican television star Eugenio Derbez (Jack and Jill, Beverly Hills Chihuahua) directs (his debut), co-writes, co-produces and stars in this somewhat racy, somewhat raunchy family film, playing a ladies man living in Acapulco, Mexico, named Valentin. Valentin ends up the reluctant caretaker for a young baby girl after the mother (Lindsey, Now You See Me), an American tourist named Julie, with whom he had a dalliance a year before, leaves her infant daughter, whom she claims is his, behind and doesn't return. After waiting in vain for the mother to come back, Valentin finally realizes he's in it for the long haul, but thinks that the young girl, whom he calls Maggie (Peralta), should go back to her mother in the United States. They cross the border and end up in Los Angeles, where Valentin lands a job as a Hollywood movie stuntman. Six years later, he eventually embraces his role as father, no longer looking for the mother Maggie so desperately wants to meet, though he writes and sends her phony letters of her adventures, including praise of her father, of course.
The English title is Instructions Not Included, while the original Spanish title translates to "Returns Not Accepted", the former more descriptive of the difficulties of raising a child and the latter about the more straightforward fact that there are no 'take-backs' when it comes to children, especially ones abandoned. At one point, the film also had the ironic alternate title, Hombre de Piedra ("Man of Stone"), due to the recurring theme throughout the movie regarding Valentin's lifelong struggle with overcoming his fears, which are represented in the form of wolves laying in wait to prey.
Although it is possible that Instructions Not Included can be enjoyed by anyone who doesn't mind reading subtitles, Derbez's film is definitely aimed at Latino viewers, who won't seem to mind that every Anglo in Los Angeles seems to be at least semi-fluently bilingual, and are willing to indulge in Valentin's insistence on always speaking Spanish. There are also a few pop culture references to song lyrics and Mexican celebrities in the humor that will likely be a bit lost on non-Latinos, but they aren't so overbearing that those who aren't in the know can't continue to enjoy the film without understanding every single gag.
Non-Latino audiences will likely feel that the colorfully broad and cartoonish style of humor, mixed with ersatz emotional content, will be reminiscent of the Adam Sandler flick, Big Daddy. There is even a recurring homage to Sandler, with whom Derbez supported in Jack & Jill, in the pictures Valentin alters to show Julie hobnobbing with the rich and famous, used to to mollify Maggie on the mother who is too busy to come see her, so it's likely that Derbez himself acknowledges the homage through its inclusion.
Instructions Not Included is wildly all over the place in terms of tone, such that, the film ranges from bright and funny to downright embarrassingly corny, particularly toward the custody battle climax when Derbez injects a few scenes of unabashed melodrama and schmaltzy emotional content (one such scene has Valentin crying out in anguish so loud and long that it's hard to know if the intent is laughter or tears). Nevertheless, the interplay between Valentin and Maggie, while played for silly laughs most of the time, grows endearing and affecting, as audiences eventually submit to Derbez's force of will to manipulate their heartstrings at any cost.
Though initially reluctant, Valentin becomes the kind of father kids can only dream about, with a cool job, a never ending stock of lavishly expensive toys, and enough imagination to entertain with wild yarns ad infinitum. However, the suddenness by which the film turns from frothy comedy to bittersweet melodrama will be seen as too jarring for some audiences, who will be stunned at just how poorly Derbez's storytelling instincts truly are, even if his knack for humorous situations keeps the film afloat. It also plays a tad long, with too many last quarter plot developments that should have been introduced earlier.
Not all of the direction by Derbez is bad. A montage sequence showing the passing years of Maggie's life from infancy to a precocious seven-year-old is effectively sweet and visually appealing. The projection of Valentin's fears in the form of a wolf (or wolves) is also used in quite clever ways, including the playboy's fear of having to rear a child; he looks at young Maggie and instantly sees a wolf pup in her place.
Nevertheless, despite moments that border on the film encroaching into train wreck territory in terms of tone, Instructions Not Included somehow manages to keep its head above water with enough funny material and energy to avoid being the disaster it frequently flirts with being. It has a sweet cast of likeable actors, and though quite syrupy in spots, Derbez, like a rascally tyke who knows how to get on your good side when the time is right, especially by trotting out the adorably sweet Peralta, who handles the bilingual nature of the film without a hitch, whenever and wherever possible.
While very few would categorize Instructions Not Included as a great film, or even a good one, it is an entertaining and often funny one (and quite bizarre, in its fashion), and for that, my recommendation (with reservations) is included.
©2013 Vince Leo