The crisis of the man-child has been done to death in movies, so much so it rings less as a comedic venture and more as a plastic joke. This is not the case in actor Eugenio Derbez's directorial feature debut, Instructions Not Included. The man-child here is Valentin Bravo (played by Derbez), a swinging bachelor in Acapulco who flees committed relationships, going through women as though they were shots of tequila. His life seems easy enough, until Julie (Jessica Lindsey), a past American-hippie fling, drops off their love child one day, abandoning them both in tears.
To maintain his swanky lifestyle of rotating women and zero responsibility, Valentin takes baby Maggie to Los Angeles in search of Julie. But Julie has already moved on, leaving Valentin to struggle through clueless fathering methods. After an act of heroism toward his daughter is witnessed by a Hollywood director, Valentin is recruited to be a stuntman, and he and Maggie begin their new life.
Fast-forward through a cutesy montage to Valentin successfully providing for the now-6-year-old Maggie (Loreto Peralta). Though he showers her with ridiculously lavish gifts and endless play dates, these gifts can't seem to fill the void in Maggie's heart as she yearns for a mommy. When Maggie starts asking questions, Valentin makes up fantastic stories about Julie traveling the world, even going so far as to mail fake letters to her from her mother. And then, Julie calls Valentin out of the blue to ask to meet Maggie.
Instructions Not Included was directed by Eugenio Derbez; written by Guillermo Rios, Leticia Lopez Margalli and Eugenio Derbez; and stars Eugenio Derbez, Loreto Peralta and Jessica Lindsey. Rated PG-13.
Derbez possesses the physical comedy and comedic timing of a modern-day Charlie Chaplin, while newcomer Peralta is his Jackie Coogan. She may be a tyke, but Peralta's joie de vivre matches Derbez's zany energy. And there's a menagerie of delightfully hilarious Hollywood caricatures: a parody of Johnny Depp, an asshole filmmaker yelling into his cell phone, even a dig at Angelina Jolie. As a filmmaker, Derbez uses bright colors to bring us into Maggie and Valentin's playtime world.
But there are also downer moments. As Valentin and Julie duke it out in the courtroom for custody of Maggie, there are attempts to lighten the situation with curmudgeonly landlords and the aforementioned "Johnny Depp" testifying for Valentin, but they're not enough to circumvent the gloom cast on the scene.
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Derbez, who starred with Adam Sandler in last year's Jack and Jill, is largely unknown to English-speaking audiences in the U.S., and that's a shame. In his native Mexico, he is regarded as a comic genius, writing and directing sitcoms broadcast all over Latin America and stateside. For this film, he gets personal, touching on his own fear of commitment—and growing out of it. A notorious playboy in his younger days, his romantic escapades with women provided tabloid fodder until his televised wedding in 2012.
For his first crossover film into the U.S., Derbez blends the two cultures. "American comedy has to be more universal because American films reach different countries and cultures around the world," he says. "Mexican comedy is more local, in which we are playing with words and innuendo. We call it albur, this humor where we relate everything to sex. It's weird, but ask any Mexican about albur, and they'll know what you're talking about."
At its core, it's the moments of tenderness and familial bliss through obstacles that bring the man out of Derbez's man-child.