The heart of Instructions Not Included is a cinematic story we’ve seen before: Man-boy is saddled with child. Child teaches man-boy how to be a real man. Filtered through the electric and inventive mind of Mexican auteur Eugenio Derbez, however, this story becomes a cross-cultural fairytale, equal parts slapstick,novella and well-observed slice of life. We follow Valentin (Derbez, who handles comedy and drama like a modern-day Charlie Chaplin) as he moves from Acapulco to Los Angeles to raise his child, the unintended result of a fling with Californian manic-pixie-dream-girl Julie (Jessica Lindsey), who ditches Valentin and their daughter and then disappears into the proverbial mist. Six years later, Julie marches back into the picture as an ice-queen litigator who demands custody of their child, the now seven-year-old Maggie (Loreto Peralta, in a flawless debut) and the film becomes a 21st century Kramer Vs. Kramer.
The film is not without its issues. Comic sequences occasionally play too long and too broad, pacing drags in the middle, there are logic problems and tonal inconsistencies. But all of this can be forgiven. This film has heart for days, and comes equipped with a funny bone that’s funnier than that of any man-boy comedy I’ve seen in years.
Whereas Eugenio Derbez is a household name in the Latino community, he’s virtually unknown to English-language audiences. This may be why this film was ignored by critics this Labor Day weekend (by Rotten Tomatoes’ count, four critics reviewed Instructions Not Included as opposed to the 68 critics who reviewed the weekend’s other major opener, the One Direction concert movie This is Us). But even though critics ignored this film, audiences didn’t. Instructions Not Included averaged more ticket sales per theater than any other film this holiday weekend. Between Friday and Monday the film took in $10 million, a Spanish-language record and a specialty box office miracle. Which is to say, it’s time to start paying attention.