There’s a good chance that most reading this column will never have heard of the writer/director and star of the new Spanish speaking comedy Instructions Not Included, Eugenio Derbez, and with good reason. He’s a Mexican television actor who is arguably the most famous comedian in Latin America. South of the border, he is a star bigger and more popular with his audience than most American TV actors you can name. In other words, ask anyone who even hints at the ability to speak Spanish and chances are, they know Eugenio Derbez.
Some years ago, the famous comedian started to write a screenplay that would help him break in to the American movie market. It took twelve years, but after all the ups and downs and trials and tribulations of getting a film project off the ground, it is finally here, and the end result is a surprising charmer.
Spoken mostly in Spanish, Instructions Not Included is the story of Valentin (Derbez), an Acapulco playboy who fears commitment and tells every woman he dates that he loves them because they’re different. It’s his style. Then, twenty months later, an American woman named Julie turns up on his doorstep with a surprise package. “I was your eternal love a year and a half ago,” Julie reminds the stunned Valentin as she hands him a newborn, then runs off in an awaiting taxi.
The child left behind is Valentin’s daughter, Maggie, and like it or not, the playboy is now a father, and, as the title suggests, when raising a child, instructions are never included. As time passes, and Maggie turns six, Valentin decides it’s time to find Maggie’s mother again. All he knows is she’s in a place called LA. “What does LA mean?” Valentin asks a friend. “Loving America?” responds the clueless buddy.
What happens next is a series of misadventures as Valentin and young Maggie (the incredibly enchanting Loreto Paralta) move to America in search of mom. When explaining the time difference between where they are and their moving to Los Angeles Valentin states to the little girl, “When Twilight opened here, it was already Breaking Dawn there.” It is while looking down from a hotel balcony that Valentin notices that Maggie has slipped by accident into the hotel swimming pool. Not giving it a second thought, Valentin jumps from the balcony, falls from a great height down the side of the hotel, lands in the water and saves the child, where he’s immediately offered the job as a Hollywood stunt man.
What makes watching Instructions Not Included fun is seeing how the relationship between Valentin and Maggie develops in front of us. With his playboy ways – not to mention a really bad hair-do – behind him, Valentin takes on the responsibilities of being a father and uses the Hollywood pay of a stuntman as a means of raising the child he has come to love more than he could ever have thought possible. The humor is gentle and sweet, though sometimes you can see the occasional broad style of the kind of TV comedy that made Derbez popular with Latin American audiences in the first place. When a friend asks of Valentin’s American girlfriend, “Did she leave you a souvenir?” Valentin responds with “She did, but I got rid of it with penicillin.” It’s a vaudeville sketch joke, the kind Benny Hill might have used forty years ago, even if comedians on TV’s Sabado Gigante continue to use it today. Other times, the humor is considerably sharper. Valentin writes a series of letters to his daughter but pretends they’re all from her absent, globe-trotting mother where Maggie learns that her mom found Nemo, freed Willy, and saved someone called Private Ryan.
Derbez comes across a hugely likable comic actor who instills a natural sense of playfulness in his performance, particularly the moments he shares with young Loreto Peralta, who, at the age of seven could easily pass as Kristen Bell’s younger sister. The story is obvious and conventional and holds little surprises, but it is undeniable fun to watch both father and daughter grow together.
If you equate Derbez with Italy’s Roberto Benigni you’re not wrong. Instructions Not Included doesn’t have the same weight as Life Is Beautiful – thankfully – but it does introduce a famous comedian much loved in his own market to an English speaking audience, plus the final moments will leave a lump in your throat. It will be interesting to see Derbez in future English speaking projects. As for little Loreto Peralta? Give that girl a Hollywood contract right now!
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)