There are moments in “Infinitely Polar Bear” that feel so true and right that you just know they were lifted directly from the life of filmmaker Maya Forbes.
Starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, the picture is based on Forbes’ childhood, when for several months she and her younger sister were raised by their mentally troubled father while their mother earned an MBA.
When it comes to depicting the ups and downs of a person with bipolar disorder, this movie is right on target.
But Forbes has been unable to fashion these incidents into a compelling narrative. For all the authenticity of its situations, “Infinitely Polar Bear” (that’s the girls’ code for their father’s bi-polar issues) is an emotionally muted and frustrating experience.
Cameron Stuart (Ruffalo) is a loving dad, if an unreliable provider. The black sheep son of Boston Brahmins, he is unable to hold a job and supports his wife Maggie (Saldana) and his daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) with a monthly stipend provided by his rich grandma.
That’s just enough money to pay for a cheap apartment and food for the table.
Maggie, who has the patience of a saint, somehow copes with Cameron’s mood swings. Sometimes he is crazily active, seizing on some event or activity and devoting himself to it with religious zeal. This is why the apartment looks like hoarder central, littered with greasy bicycle parts and other projects that never quite get completed.
He dresses weird — red swim trunks and a sports coat, say.
When he’s up, he’ll pull the girls out of school for a day of play. When he’s down he gets moody and combative — although he never turns threatening, being too much of a sweetheart for that.
Maggie, sick of their hand-to-mouth existence, lands a scholarship to do graduate work at Columbia. The plan is to leave the girls with Cameron; Maggie will return to Boston on the weekends. At the end of 18 months she’ll have a diploma and, she hopes, plenty of job offers.
Ruffalo is the center of attention here, and he’s a mix of silly and sad. Cameron loves making friends, but his intensity scares people off. The girls don’t want their playmates to come over because Dad is so darn weird.
Oh, he can be doting and adorable, as when he stays up all night making a flamenco skirt for the school talent show.
But he’s also in denial, refusing to take his meds and instead sipping beer all day long.
Small wonder that the two girls grow up fast. They must become their own adult supervisors, even as their father slips into infantile behavior.
Here’s the issue: “Infinitely Polar Bear” is itself manic depressive. The film moves along not by introducing a plot but by recyling the recurring pattern of Cameron’s mood swings. It’s one episode after another, but there’s no sernse that we’re moving forward.
Ruffalo is good. Maybe better than that.
But the film around him seems not to have a point of view. It’s been described as a comedy, but don’t expect may guffaws. Or much heartbreak, either.
It’s almost as if writer/director Forbes doesn’t trust emotion — which given her upbringing is understandable but unfortunate.
It’s only at the end — when the girls have gained enough wisdom to put their father’s disease in perspective — that “Infinitely Polar Bear” finds its legs…and by then it’s almost too late.