What Hath Kramer vs. Kramer Wrought?
The year was 2009-ish. The time: well past midnight. I was on my couch watching Kramer vs. Kramer for the first time and the movie was nearing the end. You know the part I’m talking about. The part where Meryl Streep returns to crush the audience’s and Dustin Hoffman’s hearts with her bare hands. There was sobbing, dear readers. Ugly, gross sobbing that should only be reserved for real life catastrophes and discovering that Twinkies no longer exist. But something happened to me that night as I watched Hoffman’s Ted bond with the son he barely knew, somehow I fought through the soul crushing despair the movie left me with and developed a love for the sappiest movie genre known to man: “the child melts the cynical adult’s heart and then is cruelly ripped away (or sometimes not)” genre.
Yes, that is the genre’s technical name, and while it predates Kramer vs. Kramer by a good hundred years or so (hi there, Silas Marner), I think we can agree that Dustin Hoffman’s sad face will forever define the genre, particularly in terms of film. In the years since my first encounter with the Kramer family, I have devoured every film remotely similar, from Trucker starring Michelle Monaghan as a mother left with the kid she never wanted to the criminally underrated 1965 weepie A Thousand Clowns and Leon: The Professional about a hitman saddled with a 12-year-old Natalie Portman. The sad part is, I don’t remember a single one that I didn’t enjoy. Even Three Men and a Baby (and the sequel) filled my need to watch adults suddenly transform into parents against their will. It’s a sickness really, but it’s one I don’t want cured.
Which brings me to my most recent movie outing: Instructions Not Included. You’ve probably heard of the mostly Spanish language film by now because it has been blowing up the box office. That’s not because it is a particularly revolutionary movie, but rather because it’s speaking to a huge audience of Spanish-speaking moviegoers that Hollywood has ignored. Then again, it could also be because it has mass crossover appeal if you happen to nurse an addiction to this particular genre.
Instructions Not Included tells the story of a man named Valentin who is afraid of everything and lives the happy life of a Lothario until one day one of his American exes leaves him literally holding a baby. That baby’s name is Maggie, and the little girl who plays her, Loreto Peralta, is a revelation, bringing more emotion to each scene than most adult actors could ever dream of doing– and in two languages. Trust me, this kid is one to watch out for. After illegally sneaking into America to return Maggie to her mother, Valentin realizes that he loves his daughter, and finds a way to fight his fears and become a stuntman. The movie speeds through Maggie’s early years showing us just enough to illustrate the unique bond she has with her father and the beautiful fantasy land they occupy together.
Whether or not you fall for what the movie is selling is going to depend on your quirk tolerance. If you think Little Miss Sunshine is the bee’s knees (and you still use terms like “the bee’s knees”) then Instructions Not Included is going to be a Justin Timberlake “Cry Me a River” event. If not…well then you can search out the cynical reviews and then go steal all the presents in Whoville instead of watching Valentin and Maggie’s story.
As for me? Instructions Not Included was one of my favorite films of the summer. I laughed, I cried, I cursed Dustin Hoffman for making me love movies that hurt me so much. Because this sucker will hurt. I know that sounds like a spoiler, but as someone who went in expecting a straight comedy with mild heartstring-tugging, I feel duty-bound to warn you not to wear mascara to this film. It left me gobsmacked, but just like the open wound that is Kramer vs. Kramer, I can’t help but want to poke it by going to see it again. What can I say I liked to be charmed and left in an emotionally compromised state all within an hour and a half. And it is all Hoffman’s fault.
Have you seen Instructions Not Included yet? And if not, what are you waiting for?
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