American moviegoers may only know Eugenio Derbez from “Jack and Jill,” in which he played Felipe, the Mexican gardener who is romantically involved with the titular Jill, played by Adam Sandler in drag. They shouldn’t hold that crass and unfunny mess against the actor, who is a television superstar in his native Mexico. He’s far funnier and far sweeter in “Instructions not Included,” a Mexican dramedy directed by and starring Derbez that was quietly released in the United States over Labor Day weekend, surprising many box office observers by pulling in $10.4 million dollars, without press screenings or reviews.

It’s likely the result of the actor’s reputation among the Spanish-speaking audience. While polished, amusing and with some crossover appeal, the film is geared mainly to Latinos who are already in the know. One joke in the film— which concerns an unemployed Acapulco playboy-turned-Hollywood-stuntman left to raise a child he fathered with one of his exes — is set up by the statistic that stuntman is one of the three most dangerous professions in the world. What’s number two? Pizza deliveryman in Mexico City.

I’m not sure how that punchline would play to room full of viewers who are unfamiliar with crime in the Mexican capital, but an audience of Latinos, many of whom brought young children to a recent screening, ate it up.

And Derbez does make for a genial idiot as Valentin, growing from clueless new father to World’s Best Dad almost overnight, in a montage that covers seven years of his daughter Maggie’s growth. Loreto Peralta is also pretty darn adorable as the little girl, a bilingual charmer who serves as her hapless father’s interpreter in Los Angeles, where most of the film is set.

Several of the film’s jokes have to do with the fact that Maggie, whose mother (Jessica Lindsey) was American, is part “gringa.” On more than one occasion, Valentin cites stereotypes — the blond, blue-eyed, leggy American and the short, dark and plump Mexican — with presumably comic intentions. But, it’s pushing the limits of good taste.

Although mostly a predictable comedy about parental ineptitude, “Instructions not Included” takes a surprisingly dark turn toward the end. Despite coming out of left field, the serious conclusion actually makes for a far more interesting package. One reason is that it’s such a departure from happy-ending dreck like “Big Daddy” and “Three Men and a Baby.” It’s fluff, but it’s weird fluff.

The other reason is that it works. The film’s counterintuitive success is largely due to Derbez, who demonstrates why he is beloved, both south and north of the border.


PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sensuality, brief obscenity, a flash of bare buttocks and slapstick violence. In Spanish and English with subtitles. 115 minutes.