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(2013) (Eugenio Derbez, Jessica Lindsey) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: A Mexican playboy's life is turned upside down when he is forced to care for his infant daughter.
Raised by a domineering father (HUGO STIGLITZ), Valentin (EUGENIO DERBEZ) is an Acapulco playboy who lives to bed the attractive female tourists who frequent his Mexican resort town. Life is fun and frivolous until Julie (JESSICA LINDSEY), a former conquest, leaves a baby on his doorstep and returns to America. A frantic Valentin takes his infant daughter to Los Angeles, believing the mother to be there. Unable to find her, he stumbles into work as a Hollywood stuntman thanks to a chance meeting with movie producer Frank Ryan (DANIEL RAYMONT).

Years pass, and Valentin forms a special bond with his daughter, Maggie (LORETO PERALTA). He caters to her every whim, spoiling her with toys and fanciful home décor and letting her skip school whenever she wants to spend the day with him on movie sets. He also tells her that her mother is an adventurer who travels the world, fights with Batman, and spends time with such celebrities as Bono and Adam Sandler. He even writes fake letters and cards to the girl to maintain the illusion.

Then, one day when Maggie is 7, Julie returns. In the years since her dalliance with Valentin, she has straightened her life out, gone to college, and become a successful attorney in New York. She has also become involved in a committed lesbian relationship with Renee (ALESSANDRA ROSALDO) and together they sue for full custody of Maggie. Valentin fights for his rights as a father in court even though his randy past and reckless present threaten to undermine him. At the same time, a dire health condition yet to be revealed threatens to change everything.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It's rare a movie comes out of nowhere, with no preview screenings, no fanfare, no name actors, and ends up being a box-office force on its opening weekend. I was checking the daily returns on Box Office Mojo this past Saturday to see how such major releases as "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "We're the Millers," and the "One Direction" concert movie were doing. There were jockeying for the top three positions. And in fourth place, there was this film called "Instructions Not Included" that was getting an enormous per-screen average as it was playing in less than 500 theaters across North America.

"What's that?" I asked and immediately did some reading up. As it turns out, this was a film that had been very cleverly marketed to Hispanic audiences here in the United States and was as eagerly anticipated by that emerging demographic as a new "Star Trek" movie is to the Poindexters in the basement of the Science Building. The film is mostly in Spanish and tells the story of Valentin (Eugenio Derbez), an Acapulco playboy who has to grow up suddenly when one of his former conquests leaves a baby girl on his doorstep.

Valentin takes the little girl, Maggie (played for most of the movie by 7-year-old Loreto Peralta), to L.A. to try and find the mother and stumbles into work as a stuntman in the movie business. Years pass and the two become quite a pair. But inevitably, the mother, Julie (Jessica Lindsey) will show up and want to reclaim her daughter. It's then a matter of Valentin being called to the stand to answer for all of the crazy, self-indulgent things he's ever done before and after he became a parent.

Seeing "Instructions Not Included" was definitely an experience. I got the assignment several days after it hit. But I had to try for three different showings before I could get one that wasn't sold out. And when I did see it, yes, I was the only Gringo in the sold-out theater. But it's all good. This is kind of a "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for Latinos, Latinas, and their families. They are an underserved demographic at the box office to be sure, so the temptation is to praise and even over-praise the film just for the minor phenomenon it is generating.

For the most part, I did like this flick. I am the father of an eight-year-old daughter, and Maggie reminded me very much of my Maddie. And I've been accused often of spoiling and indulging her to her supposed future detriment. So, I was heartened to see a believable father-and-daughter relationship on the big screen with genuine warmth and tenderness. Most Hollywood stories about fathers and daughters have the dads seeing their girls in vaguely sexual terms, comically obsessing on what they're doing on their dates. This one has some deeper things going on that I am tempted to spoil here, but will keep vague until the content portion below.

Derbez and Peralta are well-paired and are always watchable when together. Unfortunately, the film also has two shortcomings. One, at nearly two hours, it's too long. There are odd little bits that should have been edited out like a recurring gag involving Valentin's landlord's dementia, some odd scenes involving a movie star clearly meant to be Johnny Depp, and an odd sequence near the end where Valentin works for an elderly lady and gets into all sorts of unfunny slapstick.

Two, the film is clunky in its drifting back and forth between broad comedy and very heavy melodrama. It tries to balance those bits mentioned above and some other hijinks with plot turns involving a custody battle, a late paternity test, and one character dealing with a terminal illness. The swelling musical score during the film's more emotional moments don't help matters.

"Instructions Not Included" is definitely not light on its feet. But despite its flaws, it's effective in the end. There is a twist I should have seen coming, but didn't. And it was cleverly disguised and one that makes you reevaluate a number of earlier scenes and moments and decisions made (especially by Valentin) that make a repeat viewing also rewarding. Do I wish it were better? Sure. But I can see why it is getting such a following. The audience I saw it with was "with" the characters throughout. And, wow, were they emotional come the end credits. This one rates a 5.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed September 3, 2013 / Posted September 6, 2013

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