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Sundance: Mark Ruffalo is a Bipolar Bear

Sundance coverage continues with Nathaniel on Maya Forbes' "Infinitely Polar Bear"

Remember when people used to dump on Silver Linings Playbook for reducing mental illness to cutesy romcom obstacles? That! Only this time the drubbing is fully earned. A disclaimer before we begin: I am preternaturally disposed to enjoy Mark Ruffalo's Ruffalosity in any of its varieties or sizes so I queued up for Infinitely Polar Bear, despite my gut instincts warning me away. (One must always be weary of star vehicles at indie festivals because a famous face alone can win a movie a prized festival slot. If a movie made by unknowns and starring unknowns gets into a festival there's generally more reason to hope that it got there on pure merit.)  [more...]

Infinitely Polar Bear is the story of a married couple Cameron and Maggie (Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana) with two daughters whose lives are disrupted when the husband has a nervous breakdown. In the opening voiceover montage predictably shot with grainy affectation so as to denote home movie "realness" and or period piece affectations, we learn that Cameron is fun but unstable. And just like that he's running around in only a red speedo... in the winter... shouting nonsense. After yanking the engine out of his car when his scared wife attempts to escape with the kids, he's off to treatment (lithium and otherwise) and halfway house rehabilitation. This kick-off sequence is legitimately upsetting and Saldana grants it whatever immediacy she can with very real fear and maternal instincts. Watching Cameron's face drop back to sanity and his body slump down like a defeated naked clown when he realizes how terrified they've become gave me reason to hope that the first reel was a rough patch and we'd be on to a better film.

Unfortunately the movie remains as awkward as its title. Which, if you must know, stems from the youngest daughter confusing the term "bipolar" with "polar bears" (though I can't help you with the why on the "infinitely" part). The story charts the bumpy child-rearing compromises between husband and wife as he attempts to remain sane / become responsible while she goes back to school to become the family's bread winner. Writer/director Forbes appears to be both too enamored of Ruffalo and the peculiar comic specificities of her story to focus tightly on the innate drama. There's surely good material inside, and one could reasonably expect some scenes to work like gangbusters out of context, but none of it is in proper balance. We learn a lot about Cameron's rich comically awful family...but to what end? Meanwhile the family's biracial identity, goes anachronistically unremarked upon despite the '70s setting, meriting only two throwaway lines though one of them is bitingly sad and funny. Says the responsible black wife to her exasperating hoarder husband:  'When a white person lives in squalor they're considered eccentric. No one thinks it's cute when black people do it.'

Zoe Saldana is the long suffering wife in "Infinitely Polar Bear"

Despite Zoe Saldana's efforts to ground the film in a place of legitimate confusion (what to do with a crazy husband?) much of it rings false possibly from the bizarre tone and because Saldana and Ruffalo have accomplished the improbable feat of both  a) having good chemistry while b) acting in entirely different films; Saldana is in a drama about families struggling to get by while Ruffalo, who goes big bigger biggest, is the madcap star of a frantic Mr. Mom reboot: now with mental illness! The score doesn't help the star. At one point during one of Cameron's manic or eccentric episodes (it's a significant problem that the film can't make the distinction between those two adjectives) the score becomes so jangly-happy that I half expected Ruffalo to break out into song and dance or an Infinitely Polar Bear theme song to kick in. 

Grade: C-
Distribution: Fox Searchlight picked it up quite enthusiastically which surprised me. Though surely there are other hapless souls out there like me that would race to anything that features Mark Ruffalo leaping around in a red speedo or Mark Ruffalo on an all night bender chain smoking while sewing his daughter a huge ugly flamenco dress. 

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Reader Comments (13)

I do love Ruffalo but not quite thaat much...

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I'm one of these hapless souls.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

I fully enjoy his Ruffalosity too. Can't wait for The Normal Heart.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Definitely hapless.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Sad! The folks at In Contention had led me to believe it was a wonder.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Another hapless one.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

"C- ... red speedo" - So are you recommending this movie or not?

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Nathan, maybe the director shoulda just gone for it...and made this one a musical.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I've never been one to shy away from a movie I want to see based on a review. I will still see this once it's out to the masses.

And to the author of the article, the writer/director Forbes made it clear in an interview for the movie where the title "Infinitely Polar Bear' comes from. Apparently it was what her real life bipolar father self diagnosed himself as during his intake into a hospital. Instead of checking the box for bipolar, he checked the box for other and wrote in 'Infinitely Polar Bear'. Also, despite not seeing the movie, I think the tone was supposed to be a mix of reality (drama) and fantasy (humor). Forbes said she wrote it based on memories of her childhood with her father, and how as a child despite the terrible mental illness her father was suffering from as kids they found humor in the illness and got wrapped up in his fantasies. However her mother, she would be more grounded in reality and knowing, even fearing, the seriousness of the illness, So I think the mix was intentional. That's just my opinion though.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermyselfandtom

'When a white person lives in squalor they're considered eccentric. No one thinks it's cute when black people do it.'

LOL so true.

This movie sounds like a tonal mess.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Mr Ruffalo has very nice arms...

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

aw I'll probs will love this film to death :))

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLoll

And Ruffalo's driving a Citroën DS station wagon, cool is that?!

Anyway, I'd go see it, even if it's not all that great.

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

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