By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — First let’s deal with that inscrutable title.
Infinitely Polar Bear is the fractured way the protagonist’s younger daughter might pronounce her father’s “bipolar” disorder, which was called manic-depression in the 1970s, when this autobiographical drama is set.
Mark Ruffalo plays Cameron “Cam” Stuart, a manic-depressive father of two young girls, in Boston.
He was booted out of Harvard, had a breakdown in 1978, and had lengthy stays in a hospital and a halfway house.
He’s now married to Maggie (Zoe Saldana), who, because Cam’s unemployability keeps them financially strapped and his wealthy family offers little help, relocates to New York City to go to Columbia University, to study for her MBA over the next eighteen months and commute home on weekends.
That leaves Cam in Boston as the single father of their daughters, Amelia and Faith, played respectively by Imogene Wolodarsky (director Maya Forbes’ real-life daughter, essentially playing her real-life mother) and Ashley Aufderheide, who are often embarrassed by their dad’s inappropriate behavior, which is why they keep rolling their eyes and pleading with him to keep a low profile around their friends.
Cam is determined, despite his bipolar disorder, to win Maggie back by being a smoking and drinking, but devoted and surprisingly resourceful, if sometimes forgetful primary caretaker of his two girls.
Still, despite the obvious reciprocal love between and among the members of this nuclear family, domestic pandemonium is the order of the day as Cam and the kids ride a rollercoaster of frenetic family dynamics and the parent and child roles are essentially reversed.
The acting in this modest but heartfelt drama is uniformly splendid. The reliable Ruffalo, a two-time Oscar nominee, inhabits his role exuberantly and chances a broad interpretation early on that somehow manages to render him simultaneously infuriating and endearing, a tricky balance that the skilled and charming Ruffalo manages adroitly.
Saldana is effectively and crucially understated. And the two youngsters, both debuting, are terrifically natural.
Writer-director Forbes, a screenwriter making her directing debut in what serves as a fictionalized memoir about her manic-depressive father, captures the highs and the lows, dealing head-on with the disturbingly dramatic flourishes that accompany the affliction, but also mining the material for a surprising amount of humor.
But the comic scenes don’t so much alternate with dramatic ones as blend with them, rendering the film more lifelike than a generic offering would have.
So we’ll raise 2½ stars out of 4 for the amusing and touching Infinitely Polar Bear, an upbeat portrait of a downbeat subject that, in the acting department, never skips a beat.