Some movies are worth watching for what they attempt, not necessarily what they accomplish.
Infinitely Polar Bear is filled with good intentions. This thoughtful story — of a emotionally challenged father trying to do the right thing for his family — is touching in its approach and meaningful in its message. The film reminds us to give the people we love the benefit of the doubt because we may never know what challenges they face. And it helps us see that, just like movies, what people intend can be more memorable than what they deliver.
Mark Ruffalo, who was so moving in last year’s Foxcatcher, is well cast as a father who suffers from bipolar disorder. As he tries to be the provider his family needs, he faces the challenges that his disease can bring. This inconsistency becomes too much for his wife who decides she must become the family’s primary financial support. To advance professionally, she decides to move from Boston to New York City to study for her master’s. This leaves Ruffalo, the less-than-reliable father, in charge of his two young children. And this gives everyone plenty to absorb.
Writer/director Maya Forbes uses situations from her childhood as the basis for her moving tale of a father’s devotion to his children while trying to live within his realities. As the father trying to do what he can to be what his children need, Ruffalo is human, accessible and authentic, making us believe in the sincerity of the character’s intentions even as we can lose patience with his actions. The actor actually brings more to the role than what Forbes puts on paper. While she may suggest the extent of his emotional challenges in her screenplay, Ruffalo fills the gaps with a performance that expresses the writer’s intentions. His authentic and accessible portrayal makes the script sound more complete than what Forbes writes. He makes her words work on screen.
In her screenplay, Forbes seems hesitant to reveal how chaotic the situation can be for the children. Her approach to the uncertainly in the family situation lacks detail. This challenges the actors — beyond Ruffalo’s striking work — to add layers to their characters. While the reliable Zoe Saldana tries to make the wife sympathetic in her performance, her approach is at odds with the tone Forbes brings to the script. Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide charm as the children without getting enough detail to explore. It’s as if Forbes believes the situations are strong enough to develop the characters without scripting the specifics. And that can be difficult in a film that requires texture to be believed. As a director, Forbes brings a sensitive completeness to her work that she her screenplay lacks. She makes the family situations feel natural and the group scenes seem spontaneous. And she never lets the camera stray too far from Mark Ruffalo. Because he’s the one to watch.
Thank goodness that Ruffalo knows what to do with this type of character in this style of film. As with his other performances, his smart choices bring a complex character to life. In Infintely Polar Bear the actor makes us believe this man’s journey even if the script doesn’t always help.
Film Nutritional Value
Infintely Polar Bear
* Content: High. Maya Forbes takes us back to her childhood to recreate her father’s struggle with bipolar disorder while caring for his children.
* Entertainment: Medium. Thanks to Mark Ruffalo’s performance, the film feels more complete than its screenplay would suggest.
* Message: High. Although the script does not develop its characters as fully as it could, its message of understanding and tolerance is strong.
* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk as a family about the challenges that people face can be rewarding.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. While the film could be more developed, its good intentions and sincerity of message make it a worthwhile movie for parents and older children to share.
(Infintely Polar Bear is rated R for “language.” The film runs 90 minutes.)
3-1/2 Popcorn Buckets
As a man facing bi polar disorder in Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo again creates a fascinating look at the challenges people can face in their daily lives. His every man quality – so accessible, so human – makes him an ideal actor for films that dare to reveal the realities that people must confront.
Let’s take a look.
You Can Count on Me (2000)
After playing minor roles on screen in The Dentist and Ride With the Devil, Ruffalo begins working on stage in plays written by Kenneth Lonergan. So, when Lonergan looks for a someone to play Laura Linney’s irresponsible brother in this family drama, he immediately thinks of Ruffalo’s sense of presence and character. As a man who wants to be better for his sister than his emotional makeup permits, Ruffalo is intensly moving and wonderfully human. He makes a character who can be negative into someone we’d like to spend time with.
With the attention he gains in the Lonergan film, Ruffalo quickly scores with strong supporting performances in In the Cut (2003), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004). This leads to a small but rich role in this Michael Mann thriller about a ruthless killer on a one-evening rampage. While Tom Cruise gets the star billing, and Jamie Foxx snags the reviews, Ruffalo proves he can make a solid impression with limited screen time. And he delivers just what the role needs.
Director David Fincher knows Ruffalo can nail the tough role of a determined homicide inspector in this murder thriller about the famed serial killer in San Francisco. As a constant figures in a complex film, Ruffalo gives the character a an accessible logic that makes us believe in every move he makes. The actor makes it all look natural as if words simply come to him when the camera rolls. He is always fresh, never programmed; natural, never forced. And so at ease on screen.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Finally, Ruffalo gets a role that brings him an Academy Award nomination, an honor he should have experienced at least a couple of times before. He brings depth to the role of a carefree man who learns he is the biological father to the children of a lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Juliane Moore. Ruffalo secures the film as he considers what he can mean to the teenaged children he meets for the first time. The thoughts expressed in his eyes capture what someone in this situation might feel.
Ruffalo again finds himself an Oscar nominee for his striking portrayal of a supportive brother in this tale of John du Pont’s fascination with the United States Wrestling Team. The actor is irresistible as a man concerned about du Pont’s actions – and their impact on his brother – while becoming fascinated by his wealth. As with so many of his films, Ruffalo makes us want to see so much more of a rich character he creates. And adds dimension to a complicated character. With Infinitely Polar Bear, the actor gets the chance to carry a film with a dynamic lead performance. And he does so with ease, making us believe there is more to this character much more than its screenplay may suggest. He is always worth watching.
See you at the movies.