Eugenio Derbez, the director and star of Instructions Not Included, aspires to be a figure like Roberto Benigni: in interviews, he name checks Life is Beautiful, the 1997 film that netted Benigni two Oscars (Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film) at the 71st Academy Awards. Derbez turned to Life is Beautiful as a starting point for his new film’s story about a father who creates elaborate, fanciful scenarios to address the emotional needs of his young daughter. Moving this setup to contemporary Los Angeles, Instructions Not Included follows well-meaning reformed lothario Valentin, who repeatedly martyrs himself as a stuntman to give his daughter the life he thinks she needs.
The first portion of the film recasts a typical comedy of errors into the realm of immigration law. Valentin is a clueless resort-town denizen living far south of the border, though that may not explain his total lack of awareness—he and his friends aren’t sure what “L.A.” stands for but have reliable knowledge of the habits of Angelina Jolie—and when a young American woman drops a baby named Maggie in his lap, he travels to California without a visa solely in an attempt to give her back. Through a series of misunderstandings, driven by the fact that Valentin speaks no English, father and daughter end up at a Hollywood hotel, where Valentin impresses a producer in need of a stuntman by leaping off of a balcony.
The rest of the plot is similarly fluky and convoluted, but (spoiler alert) Valentin realizes he loves Maggie, and knowing that a return to Mexico would likely precipitate abandoning his American daughter, cuts himself off from his former life. Instead, the two grow together, with Valentin supplying Maggie (played by a wide-eyed Loreto Peralta) with an endless stream of toys and an idyllic childhood of movie set visits and sporadic school attendance. When Maggie’s mother, Julie (Jessica Lindsey), decides she wants to be a part of the child’s life, she takes issue with his parenting style, and everyone gets put through the emotional wringer.
Derbez, a sharp comedic actor with an emotive face, ably shoulders most of the film’s emotional burden. And where his brand of humor is slapsticky, it’s sometimes subtly smart, as when Valentin is forced to endure the small humiliation of walking a pair of Chihuahuas named Diego and Frida. Valentin’s unlikely occupations are due to pure chance, but they’re also the result of assuming responsibility for a minor in a country that hasn’t given him legal residency. Oddly (or perhaps not, given the film’s already bloated running time), the script frequently ignores opportunities to explore the complexities of the situation—for example, the big shot movie producer who essentially exploits Valentin, causing him serious physical injury, later assumes the role of his best friend and primary defender when Maggie’s mother unexpectedly returns. It’s small wonder that Valentin is afraid to commit to reality, when his life contains equal parts hilarity and callousness.
In effect, the film is actually half-ardent Benigni imitation, half Kramer vs. Kramer (with a dash of Big Daddy thrown in, perhaps as a nod to Adam Sandler, who is mentioned by name in the film). Up until now, Derbez, a huge star in Mexico with several television series under his belt, has attempted to break into U.S. households via relatively small roles, including one as a member of Rob Schneider’s adoptive family on the short-lived CBS series Rob, and a brief appearance as a wacky gardener in the Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill. Although Instructions Not Included has been an unqualified success in the United States, grossing nearly $35 million, its primary accomplishment may be tactical rather than artistic. Derbez is now primed as a known box office earner—as he responded to Larry King’s recent assessment that he’d soon be a big hit in America: “Finally! After years and years of struggling and fighting.”
Benigni’s acceptance speech at the 1999 Oscars represents the symbolic apex of Hollywood adoration for a foreign comic with directorial aspirations. Of course, to be Roberto Benigni, you have to evince a certain guileless sincerity, and Instructions is too suave for that. Derbez can’t resist making his childish protagonist an effortless ladies’ man, and one of the script’s most noticeable quirks is its love of taking specific potshots at Hollywood. At one of Valentin’s jobs, we meet a mumbling Johnny Depp (played by an impersonator) who, in the process of filming something called Aztec Man, is dressed a lot like Jack Sparrow. Another scene is an extended gag about the prestige of fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming film, Gravity. This kind of meta-commentary doesn’t advance the plot, but alongside the soap opera-like twists and turns, gives the film a strange flavor of world-weariness, as if Derbez is all too aware of his limitations.
That comes through most clearly in the film’s surprise ending, which as the culmination of of a dragging third act is so couched in melodrama that the viewer would be totally justified in not seeing it coming. For reasons that seem more pragmatic than emotional, the unconventional relationships that we’ve followed through the entire film are abruptly cut short. We’re left with the feeling that while you can create a theatrical juggernaut by opening every door available to you, there’s really no way to close them all gracefully.
Director: Eugenio Derbez
Writer: Guillermo Ríos, Leticia López Margalli, Eugenio Derbez
Starring: Eugenio Derbez, Jessica Lindsey, Loreto Peralta, Daniel Raymont
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2013