The box-office surprise of 2013 is a cheaply made, unbelievable, unfunny comedy-drama with a Mexican star-writer-director you’ve never heard of, who isn’t the least bit amusing, doesn’t act very well, and writes even more poorly. Imagine Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy crossed with Three Men and a Baby, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Life Is Beautiful—yes, you read that right, it owes a considerable amount to that wretched thing about a father shielding his child from the horrors of a Nazi death camp—and you have Instructions Not Included. Sounds like something you’d want to drop everything to see, no?
Maybe you wouldn’t, but there are millions of people who are doing just that. During its opening weekend in August, Instructions Not Included startled everyone in the motion-picture industry by earning nearly $7.9 million while showing on a mere 346 screens—meaning it averaged an astounding $22,000 per screen. The following weekend, it doubled the number of screens on which it showed and earned a comparably staggering $11,000 per screen. It is on its way to earning $40-$50 million in the United States before it goes on to break the bank in Mexico and Latin America, where it will do huge business.
The success of Instructions Not Included is yet another indication of the degree to which (sorry to all who use the word “shamnesty” the way an elephant eats peanuts) Spanish-language popular culture is becoming a significant force in American life. In July, Univision was the most-watched television network in the country with viewers under the age of 50. In New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, local Spanish-language newscasts regularly top the weekly ratings.
Some of these numbers are due to the flight of the English-speaking audience, which is getting more of its entertainment from the Internet and cable, from broadcast television. Still, if this is a subculture, it’s one of the largest and most potentially profitable subcultures the world has ever seen.
That is why Lionsgate, which produces the Hunger Games movies and other blockbusters, created, with the Mexican studio Televisa, a production company called Pantelion to make films and TV shows that might have appeal both in North and Latin America. Instructions Not Included is the second Pantelion offering. (The first was a deeply strange pseudo-parody of Mexican soap operas called Casa de Mi Padre with Will Ferrell that crashed and burned at the box office in 2012.) The third, a romantic comedy called Pulling Strings, about a mariachi band player and an uptight U.S. embassy employee in Mexico City, opens in October.
Instructions Not Included begins in Acapulco, where an irresponsible ladies’ man named Valentín is living a life of noncommitment until an American hippie chick returns, 18 months after her vacation there, to deposit a baby girl on his doorstep and flee. Panicked at the thought of having to take care of her, he crosses the border in the back of someone’s truck to find the mother in Los Angeles. When he is forced to save the baby from drowning by leaping off a hotel balcony into a pool, he lucks into a job as a stuntman.
As the years pass, he creates a loving fantasy world for his daughter, full of toys, limited schooling, and letters from her vanished mother—claiming she’s been to the moon, went to find Nemo, saved Private Ryan, is fighting al Qaeda, and the like. When Maggie is 7 years old, the mother resurfaces and sues him for custody. Now, Valentín has a secret: He’s been to the Mayo Clinic, and a doctor tells him there’s not much time left.
Watching this amateurish tripe in a remarkably populated theater on a weekday afternoon, I found myself astounded at the movie’s success. When you see comedy stars from other countries and cultures, you can usually get a sense of the appeal, even if it doesn’t appeal to you; but Eugenio Derbez is really kind of a dud, and is 15 years older than the character he’s playing. You’d really have to be starved for culturally sensitive content to run out of the theater and tell your friends to see Instructions Not Included, Spanish language or no Spanish language, I thought.
Then came the final 10 minutes, and I understood. Derbez suddenly pulls off a storytelling masterstroke. Valentín flees back to Mexico with the girl, even though he’s discovered she isn’t even his biological daughter. They are joined there by the mother, who has learned a truth that we, the audience, misconstrued. The three of them finally form a family for a brief period of time, before death pays its inevitable visit.