Instructions shows how it’s done
By Carl Kozlowski
With his new film Instructions Not Included, Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez schools Hollywood on how to make a comedy
It’s rare that a movie can come along and become a truly unexpected phenomenon these days, with all the hype available on the Internet and social media, in addition to the usual barrage of TV ads and movie trailers. But the Mexican comedy Instructions Not Included has defied the odds to become a smash hit that Hollywood truly didn’t see coming.
Co-written, directed by and starring Eugenio Derbez, who has never made a big splash before in America, Instructions made a whopping $10 million off less than 400 screens in its opening weekend two weeks ago to average more than a staggering $25,000 per screen. In its second weekend last week, it earned nearly $9 million more after expanding to just more than 700 theaters, revealing that word of mouth is on fire and portending that the sky’s the limit as the film continues to expand nationally in the coming weeks.
Considering its consecutive third-place finishes are putting star-driven Hollywood blockbusters to shame, this is a paradigm-shifting situation. But is it really that good? And is it relatable to viewers outside its Hispanic core audience base who will likely have to rely on reading its subtitles when Valentin and other Spanish-speaking characters are talking?
Thankfully, the answer to both questions is a resounding “Si!” for this movie is muy bueno. Instructions tells the story of Valentin (Derbez), a promiscuous ladies’ man who inexplicably lives in a luxurious Acapulco condo despite not having a job. One day, one of his many sexual conquests, an American named Julie, returns to hand him a baby named Maggie whom he didn’t even know he had, and then flees back to America.
Desperate to hand Maggie back and avoid impacting his life of luxury, Valentin sneaks across the border to Los Angeles to find Julie at the hotel he believes she works at. He learns she’s been fired, but through a misunderstanding with a hotel maid, he believes Julie is living in the hotel’s presidential suite. Since no children are allowed in the hotel, he hides the baby in a basket in the hotel laundry room and heads upstairs, only to get in an argument with a movie producer who’s actually staying there.
While the producer takes a phone call to demand a new stuntman for his latest production, Valentin looks down at the hotel pool to find Maggie crawling and falling into it. Summoning courage that he learned as a boy from his daredevil father, Valentin leaps 10 stories off the suite’s balcony to save the baby—and winds up as the hottest new stuntman in Hollywood.
Now Valentin has a career that can enable him to raise Maggie, and the movie seems to settle into a touching and funny portrait of a man having to grow up and face responsibility for a child in much the same fashion as Three Men and a Baby. Then Julie shows up, trying to reenter Maggie’s life at age 6. But just when you think this is about to get predictable, Derbez and his co-writing team break out twist after impressive twist, turning the movie into a superb juggling act of comedy, drama and occasionally, well-earned heart-tugging emotions.
As entertaining as the movie is while it plays out before your eyes, it’s even more impressive looking back upon it. Derbez has taken a genre and premise that has been so played out it should have been tiresome and invigorates it with zesty performances and writing that pops off the screen. He’s also a master of montage, bringing that most tiresome trope to new life both for comic and maximum emotional effect.
Aside from his own stellar central performance, Derbez draws great work from Loreto Peralta as Maggie and Jessica Lindsey as Julie. Both Valentin and Julie at different points could have been simply unpleasant characters, but as they reveal their more complicated actual natures, their well-rounded turns are key to engaging the audience and taking them along for a ride that puts most American comedies to shame.
As a result, Instructions Not Included is definitely a movie that any audience can relate to. And here’s hoping that Derbez will continue schooling Hollywood on how mainstream comedies should be done in many more movies to come.