Instructions Not Included
Mexican playboy Valentín Bravo isn't afraid of hopping into bed with a woman if the opportunity presents itself. But when lustful nights morph into morning-after pillow talks about commitment, well, that's when things get dicey for this Don Juan. That's because commitment is just one of the many things Valentín fears—along with spiders, flying, heights, getting a job, learning English and, well, just about everything that doesn't involve strings-free romance.
And then one day there's a knock on his door.
An American woman named Julie, whom Valentín once soliloquized as "his first and last love," is standing there. She's holding a nine-month-old baby. A baby she says is his. A baby she hands to Valentín as she borrows $10 from him to go pay her taxi driver before coming back up to his apartment.
Except that Julie never comes back.
So Valentín stands there, holding a little girl we come to know as Maggie and wondering what just happened. Because in the moment it took for an ex to slam the door, he's gone from carefree playboy to instant parent.
Stuffed into Maggie's diaper bag is a letter and a picture of Julie, who was an aerobics instructor, standing in front of the California Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. And since Valentín has absolutely no interest in being a father, he scoops up little Maggie and hitchhikes north from Acapulco, sneaks across the border and attempts to return the child to her mother.
She's long gone, of course. But while searching for her, Valentín ends up in the hotel suite of Hollywood movie producer Frank Ryan … just about the time Maggie wiggles out of her seat and crawls toward a swimming pool 10 stories below. Valentín savagely stuffs down his acrophobia and jumps off the balcony into the water to save her. It's a leap of faith that earns him a stuntman job from Frank, and one that paves the way for a new and very different life for Valentín and Maggie in Tinseltown.
Fast-forward seven years, and Valentín and Maggie have carved out an unconventional-but-delightful life together. His stunt work keeps him busy and well paid, and he often brings Maggie along to act as his translator and negotiator. (While he managed to overcome many of his latent fears for Maggie's sake, he's still afraid of learning English.)
The only typo in the script is that Maggie longs to know her mother. Valentín tells her that they got divorced when she was very young, and each week he writes another letter to his little girl that he claims is from her mom. Thus, Maggie adores the mother she's never met. But that can't keep the 7-year-old from wondering, "If she loves me, why doesn't she come to see me?" Accordingly, Valentín has just begun to audition actresses who can "play" Julie when something quite unexpected happens again: Maggie's prodigal parent shows up.
Just as Julie complicated Valentín's life the first time, her sudden return does so again. But this time there's a big difference. The difference of a little girl. And the ensuing complications reveal just how much our former ladies' man has been transformed into a loving father determined to do the best he knows how for the daughter he never asked for.
Valentín Bravo is about as far from fatherhood material as a man can get at first. But Maggie's presence in his life slowly changes him from an utterly self-absorbed and selfish cad to a man who's willing to face his fears and sacrifice many things in life on behalf of his beloved daughter.
He's doesn't always do everything right by her, and sometimes his choices for her are as childish as she is. But no one can question his dedication and selfless adoration. A good example revolves around him forging those letters: Keenly aware of the absence of Maggie's mother from her life, he concocts and describes for the girl all manner of humanitarian, even superhero-level exploits that keep her away from them. He's trying to approximate a loving mother's attention as best he can, hoping against hope that it will fill Maggie's heart enough for her to get by.
Maggie's principal isn't happy that Valentín often removes her from school to be with him at work, of course. And she accuses Valentín of encouraging Maggie to live in a fantasy world—a world that's reinforced by the fact that Daddy himself often plays fantastic parts as a stuntman in movies with names like Aztec Man. There's certainly wisdom in the principal's observations, as there is in a judge's order for Valentín to keep the girl in school more. And when push comes to shove, Valentín is shown trying hard to honor the instructions he's given. (Up to a point. More on that later.)
As for Julie, we watch her awaken to the reality that she does want to be a mother after all. (But her way of satisfying that desire leaves much to be desired. More on that later, too.)
Related to Valentín's growth as a father is his growth in the area of phobias. Early on, we learn that his dad was a world-famous Acapulco cliff diver. He had an inkling of Valentín's phobic tendencies, and tried, in his own way, to help his boy overcome those fears. Thus, for much of his life, Valentín has struggled to understand why his father did seemingly cruel things to him (such as putting a tarantula on his chest or locking him in a cemetery crypt at midnight or tossing him off a high cliff to sink or swim). Just like the principal and judge have pointed out his own flawed attempts to create a perfect fantasy world for Maggie, then, Valentín begins to realize that his father also had good intentions if not great execution.
Valentín teaches Maggie to say a little incantation/rhyme over him when he's knocked out on the job. In it, she follows "aching head" with "bring you back from the dead." Valentín later tells Julie that he sometimes "plays dead" so that Maggie can "resurrect" him, which prompts Julie to ask what would happen if he were to be truly mortally injured. I mention this as "spiritual" since Maggie seems to actually believe in the spell's efficacy. At one point she tells her daddy that when she grows up, "I want to be immortal, just like you."
People express faith in an afterlife and going to a better place. It's said of Valentín's dad, "I hope he's in heaven."
An early montage shows Valentín kissing and embracing about a dozen different women in quick succession. Most wear little more than bras and underwear. When Julie arrives with Maggie, Valentín is in bed with two women at once. And he says he caught a sexually transmitted infection from Julie.
Maggie doesn't completely change Valentín. Throughout her childhood, he has an ongoing sexual relationship with a neighbor who's always asking suggestively if he can come over to unclog her drain and "check my plumbing." (The relationship is implied through innuendo, not shown.) Julie, meanwhile, is in a lesbian relationship with a woman named Reneé, prompting Maggie to blurt out in confusion, "She's your boyfriend?" (Valentín tries to use an illustration from Barney & Friends to help her understand that some families are "different.")
A handful of lines and/or visuals include sexual innuendo, including a reference to incest (as Valentín lies to two lovers, saying that Julie is his sister) and another involving a cross-dressing actor.
After his fateful plunge into the pool to save Maggie, Valentín's stuntman occupation prompts quite a few images of him getting hurt from falls and throws, sometimes repeatedly. Though these moments are played for laughs, there's still a sense that what Valentín does is, in fact, very hazardous.
Other pratfalls involve him being attacked by a Rottweiler, dragged underneath a car (resulting in the backside of his overalls being worn through, revealing his bare, abraded backside) and getting nearly electrocuted. Trying to teach young Maggie how to play soccer, Valentín overzealously kicks a ball too hard and it knocks her backwards (out of the frame). Maggie gets into a "girl fight" with a fellow student who's verbally bullying her. She also hits her father when she finds out that the stories he's told about Julie aren't true.
Crude or Profane Language
English profanities include two f-words and three s-words, as well as two or three misuses of God's name. Also one to three uses each of "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑" and "friggen." Name-calling includes "bimbo" and "moron."
Spanish profanities (translated in subtitles) include a handful of uses of the s-word, "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑," as well as two or three misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People drink wine socially. Someone smokes. Valentín mentions Mexico's drug dealers.
Other Negative Elements
Julie plays dirty when it comes to legally wresting Maggie away from Valentín. And Valentín responds in kind, ultimately. He smuggles Maggie into the U.S., as noted, and later he also smuggles her out, technically kidnapping her by defying a court order.
In a difficult moment with baby Maggie, Valentín blurts, "I want an abortion" and "d‑‑n cheap condoms." He rides a moped with a very young Maggie precariously confined by his zippered sweatshirt. And he meanly stereotypes the difference between American girls (tall, thin, blonde) and Mexican girls (short, fat, dark). Frank gets irate about a "midget" slipping in excrement on a movie set. Valentín steals $10 from a lover's purse to pay Julie's cab fare.
Young Valentín wets himself in a moment of fear—which we see depicted as a wolf urinating on him. (The animal is symbolic of all of Valentín's fears.) Gags revolve around belching, dirty diapers and passing gas. A bathroom scene shows Valentín's feet behind a stall door while Maggie sits on the floor just outside, commenting on the noises being made. We see Valentín get a shot from a doctor in his partially revealed backside. Maggie describes the results of a defecating elephant. An old man regales her with a sarcastic invitation to see the "pimples on my butt."
Every now and then a film comes along that slips silently through the Hollywood net, surfacing unexpectedly at or near the top of the U.S. box office as scores of newfound fans find it and embrace it. With dialogue that's mostly in Spanish, Instructions Not Included (or No se Aceptan Devoluciones) is exactly such a case.
Co-writer, co-producer, director and star Eugenio Derbez (a well-known Mexican comedy actor), told fandango.com, "I started writing this script 12 years ago after I saw Life Is Beautiful. I was really inspired by Life Is Beautiful and Cinema Paradiso. Then I saw Little Miss Sunshine years later and I thought, I want to do a comedy with a lot of heart. I studied a lot of films for years to reach this balance between a drama and comedy. It's not easy. First we wrote it as a drama and then we started adding bits of humor into the script. The goal was to have a natural flow."
Some critics have found the film's back-and-forth movement between silly slapstick and teary-eyed melodrama a bit jarring. But few would argue that this thing does indeed have "a lot of heart." As a father of two young girls (and a boy), I deeply related to Valentín's struggles as I watched, and was increasingly inspired by his tender, unwavering devotion to Maggie. A colleague, meanwhile, told me that what resonated most for him was the idea of overcoming fear for the sake of family. So this is a film that hits you from several angles—even as it gets gross and goofy sometimes.
Which, of course, leads us to the content concerns, from the opening montage featuring a dozen or so of Valentín's lovers to bathroom gags and butt-baring pratfalls to interjections of f- and s-words. These are the things that unfortunately don't ever get lost in translation as they crash into a story that otherwise offers some poignant illustrations of just how much parental love can (should!) change you.