Autobiographical drama “Infinitely Polar Bear” tells a family story with some sweetness and warmth. But when the film’s bookending, it’s-all-good voiceovers and sporadically nostalgic tone are held in the light, they look more like storytelling devices than expressions of deeper truths.
Set in the late 1970s, “Infinitely Polar Bear” is based on writer-director Maya Forbes’ childhood. In the film, the father of sisters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) is a manic-depressive.
Husband and father Cam Stuart can’t keep a job. When he gets fired again at the beginning of “Infinitely Polar Bear,” the delighted Cam pulls his daughters out of school for a romp through the countryside.
Later, Cam, dressed in his red bathing suit, rides his bicycle in the New England winter as his distressed family looks on. And then he crashes into depression.
Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher,” “Begin Again, “The Avengers”) plays Cam, a man from a wealthy family whose mental state prevents him from living the comfortable blueblood lifestyle he was born into. Ruffalo commits to the role, but his Cam character never becomes the funny and charming person the film’s writer-director intended him to be.
Cam’s struggles in “Infinitely Polar Bear” are serious, but the script softens the despair and drama that his illness is likely to cause himself and his family. Maybe more Cam-powered train wrecks, such as the scene in which he assaults a well-to-do cousin, would have given the movie more punch.
Ruffalo and the director show Cam as more eccentric than seriously ill. He’s supposed to be the crazy but fun character that his family, and by extension the audience, can’t help but love. But the film’s emphasis on warm and fuzzy over self-destructive reduces Cam’s madness and his apparently love for his family into feel-good blandness.
Zoe Saldana co-stars as Cam’s at-the-end-of-her-rope wife, Maggie. But the character is almost a prop, in the room to frown about and fret over her madcap husband’s misadventures.
Maggie, following a manic-depressive episode that lands Cam in a mental hospital, concludes that she must find a way to support her children.
Upon her acceptance to Columbia University’s MBA program, Maggie tells Cam she can graduate in 18 months. She asks him to stay in Boston and be guardian for the couple’s daughters while she pursues her degree in New York. He reluctantly agrees.
With their mother away, Amelia and Faith, despite being children, at times become the adults in the chaotic apartment they share with their predictably unpredictable father. The girls are angered and embarrassed by his irresponsible behavior and unconventional parenting. For instance, they don’t find it funny when, against their wishes, their dad accompanies them to the park and forgets to wear pants.
And that’s most of what “Infinitely Polar Bear” is — a series of episodes about life with a capricious, manic dad.
Combined with the film’s middling drama, the cumulative episodes, important in the life of the writer though they are, don’t seem worthy of chronicling in a screenplay or, for that matter, a novel.
Pieces that would lead to “Infinitely Polar Bear’s” feel-good conclusion are missing. Added to the movie’s general surface bobbing, a fabricated, feel-good ending is “Infinitely Polar Bear” at its most false.