Code Switch
9:20 am
Tue September 10, 2013

'Instructions Not Included' Also Skimps On Laughs

I paid $10.50 to go see Instructions Not Included on a weekday afternoon. I was robbed.

The film, which is mostly in Spanish, has attracted plenty of attention for its box office success ($20 million in two weeks). This past weekend it was the third highest grossing film after Riddick and The Butler. But the focus of the media coverage to date has been on the movie-going habits and purchasing power of Latino filmgoers as a whole and not on the merits of the movie itself.

Thankfully, in the case of Instructions Not Included, you don't have to be a film critic to know the movie sucked. It manages to be an artistic failure and a commercial success at the same time, the latter because it taps a Latino audience that has been overlooked.

It's a bit of a surprise that the movie should be such a dud given the talent of Eugenio Derbez — the film's director, star and one of the screenwriters. And it is even more surprising that the film has been largely ignored by critics. Derbez, one of Mexico's best-known comic actors with more than 3.2 million Twitter followers, has a populist knack for tailoring his humor to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. He understands the idiosyncrasies of Mexican and Latin-American culture and knows how to play them for laughs.

And it is obvious that he is a funny guy even in his second language, as evidenced by his appearance on Jimmy Fallon's show.

But in his movie, the laughs come few and far between.

Derbez's character Valentín Bravo is busy seducing a string of beautiful women tourists when Julie (Jessica Lindsey), a former flame who Valentín doesn't even recognize, appears at the door carrying a baby, Maggie. Julie hands over Maggie, walks away and heads to the airport.

Bravo hitchhikes to Los Angeles with Maggie in search of Julie. Along the way we hear diaper gags and a joke about how dark-skinned Mexican girls would envy the blonde Maggie. An insanely improbable series of events turns Bravo into a Hollywood stuntman.

In one of many failed attempts at comic relief, we meet a neighbor who suggestively pleads with Valentín to unclog her pipes. You can see part of that last scene at the end of this trailer:

There are no subtleties in this movie. Every possible dramatic moment is hyped to the nth degree and played for melodrama. And if you miss the heavy-handed emotional cues, the director helpfully announces these moments with melodramatic music.

It's a familiar and pleasing formula if you are one of the millions of Latinos who watches telenovelas each night on Spanish-language television. Instructions Not Included shares with telenovelas the mass-audience appeal, the love of melodrama, and topsy-turvy plot twists. Except that telenovelas are better and more tightly written than this movie. After all, it takes real writing talent and strong narrative to keep viewers coming back each night, five nights a week, at the same time on the same channel.

This movie inches along, particularly during a drawn-out courtroom battle that is alternately played for laughs and tears but instead produces groans. The single-worst scene features a set of grade-school mean girls so glam and so unsubtle it looks like someone breathed life into a bunch of Bratz dolls. Pathetic.

The most galling aspect of the film is that it was made with the "colaboracion del estado de Guerrero" ("with the support of the state of Guerrero") and it shows. The Mexican state of Guerrero was handsomely rewarded by the movie-makers for its "support." The film's beginning and end are set in Guerrero's most famous beach, Acapulco. The middle of the movie is riddled with gratuitous and heavy-handed references to Acapulco.

Despite its lack of artistry, Instructions Not Included contains moments that will resonate with many Latino immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children. Seven-year-old Maggie, for example, serves as an interpreter on the job for her father, a role played by many children of Latin immigrants. You see it often at government offices and at grade schools.

Animated English-language kids movies often feature humorous references that fly over the heads of the little ones, designed to amuse their parents. Instructions Not Included instead features cultural references that might fly past those who are not Latino:

Bravo, early in the movie, uses the name of a seasoning sauce popular in Mexico (salsa Maggi) to remember his daughter's name. Later Bravo and Maggie hitchhike a ride back to Mexico in a truck driven by a woman named Lola — a wink at a famous (and famously cheesy) series of Mexican action films starring a character known as Lola la trailera ("Lola the truck driver").

These references are fleeting, but they reinforce for Latino moviegoers — particularly Mexican-American filmgoers — that this movie was made with them in mind.

Perhaps the best way to think of Eugenio Derbez is as a Latino Tyler Perry in the making. He makes sure to provide something for every member of the typical Latino family (parents, grandparents or U.S.-born teenagers who read the subtitles to better follow the action on the screen). He can afford to ignore the few critics who bother to review his film and bask in the glow of a community happy just to see and hear itself on screen.

Derbez may not know how to make a good film but he sure knows how to reach his target audience. The $20 million in box office receipts for a movie that looks like it cost peanuts to make is proof Derbez (like Perry before him) is a genius marketer and (also like Perry) proof that lousy filmmaking doesn't always turn off an audience.

Unfortunately, this means we are almost certainly going to see more films directed by Derbez targeting a Latino audience. That's the bad news. The good news is that we might also see a flood of low-budget movies from other directors getting the go-ahead in the hopes of duplicating the financial success of Instructions Not Included. Maybe one of those directors will figure out how to make a good movie that speaks to the Latino community, features Latino actors, actually makes people laugh and, to boot, makes money.

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