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'Instructions Not Included' is top 10 surprise
Film is a two-hour version of a Univision melodrama
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Eugenio Derbez portrays Valentin in the film “Instructions Not Included.”

‘Instructions Not Included’

Starring: Eugenio Derbez, Jessica Lindsey, Loreto Peralta, Daniel Raymont

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic elements and language

Runtime: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Bottom line: Uneven but endearing melodrama

"Instructions Not Included" (original title "No se Aceptan Devoluciones") is one of the most interesting cinematic surprises to come along in years.

This mostly Spanish-language melodrama/comedy wasn’t prescreened for critics in most markets and still hasn’t earned a great deal of English-language press, yet it has earned more than $20 million in less than two weeks.

It’s not unprecedented for a "foreign" film (more on that in a moment) to do well in the U.S., but this movie wasn’t on anyone’s radar until it debuted in the box office top ten.

I refuse to mislabel this a "foreign" movie. The project was completed under the banner of California-based Pantelion Films and Lionsgate Entertainment. If that makes it a foreign film, then I guess "The Hunger Games" trilogy is foreign, too.

However, that is inevitably how "Instructions Not Included" will be measured, and by the end of this week, it should rank in the top-five grossing foreign films ever to play in the U.S.

All of this has movie writers, including me, scrambling to explain its success. Is it because the movie is just so good?

Um, no.

"Instructions Not Included" is what you’d get if you condensed an entire season of a Univision primetime melodrama into a two-hour movie. It features outrageous plot turns, awkwardly blends screwball humor with tragedy, genuinely touches the heart at times, yet becomes unintentionally hilarious at others.

Each scene is like a different episode of a television series. The tone shifts so abruptly and radically that it often seems we’ve jumped into a completely different movie.

The opening sequence is darkly comedic, as 6-year old Valentin’s father puts him through one absurd torment after another, all in the name of making him fearless.

It then becomes a sex farce as it establishes adult Valentin (Eugenio Derbez) as an Acapulco playboy who beds one tourist after another. When one of his conquests, Julie (Jessica Lindsey), abandons their child, Maggie, with him, it shifts into "3 Men and a Baby" territory. Valentin and baby Maggie then illegally cross the border into the U.S. to find Julie, and it becomes a fish-out-of-water comedy.

And that’s all in the first act. It later feels like a cross-cultural remake of "Kramer vs. Kramer," cribs from American sitcoms like "Modern Family," and ultimately turns into pure Mexican melodrama.

The movie tries to be too many things at once, and the cast is obviously overcompensating for a weak script.

But one has to admire a movie that bucks the Hollywood trend and actually tries hard to entertain its audience, and at times it’s irresistible.

It’s also an example of how an average movie can become a fascinating cultural moment.

Like millions of American children, Maggie (Loreto Peralta) lives a bicultural life. She speaks perfectly in both Spanish and English and translates for her father.

It’s a rather masterful stroke that the movie makes Maggie blonde-haired and blue-eyed like her mother — who also speaks very good Spanish, by the way.

This choice creates subtle but brilliant effects, as Peralta draws in both Anglo viewers (visually) and Hispanic viewers (verbally). She is the ideal, inclusive bridge between the two cultures viewing this movie.

I’ve remarked that no one foresaw the success of this movie, but perhaps that’s my own limited world view coming out. Perhaps it was just the English-speaking critical establishment who didn’t see it coming.

Derbez has been a prolific actor, writer, producer and director on Mexican television for more than a decade and had already begun to build an English-language following in the U.S. Perhaps we should have known he would be a big draw.

Perhaps we should have known that sooner or later a movie would finally attract Latino viewers to American cinemas en masa (after many failed attempts).

Perhaps English-speaking critics should stop thinking in such monolingual, monocultural terms.

And perhaps "Instructions Not Included" foreshadows the emergence of new talents and diverse voices into mainstream American movies.

If that’s true, I say, que sigue.

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