Movies about disabilities and personality disorders run the risk of defining the character mostly by their handicap. These movies often offer little more to say than it’s hard being a person with a disability. A movie like last year’s Still Alice screamed the challenges of Alzheimer’s, but Julianne Moore’s performance made it a story about identity and how we keep from losing it.
In Infinitely Polar Bear, Mark Ruffalo manages a similar feat, creating a lived-in performance about a bi-polar individual defined by his social qualities, his habits of drinking and hoarding junk, and his love for his daughters — and not strictly his erratic behavior. Ruffalo’s strength is in never appearing to be “on” or “off.” He’s convincingly manic depressive without ever going broad or playing on the melodramatic extremes of living with this disorder.
Director Maya Forbes doesn’t embellish the struggles of living with a person with bi-polar disorder. Rather, Infinitely Polar Bear (which takes its title from the way Ruffalo’s daughter pronounces his condition) is a heartwarming lark of a film with as many ups and downs as its main character. It’s so light that it fails to say much of anything of substance, but it remains a charming story of a father and his two daughters just having a slightly harder time than normal.
Ruffalo plays Cameron, and when we meet him, he’s seen as violently unstable, chasing his wife Maggie’s (Zoë Saldana) car in nothing but his red underpants while riding a bicycle. She separates from him, taking custody of their two daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide). And after a stint in therapy, Maggie looks to Cameron to care for the girls while she returns to school. Cameron comes from a family of immense wealth, but they remain pitifully poor, forcing Maggie to seek her MBA and better opportunities.
The extent of the film’s problems and dramatic arc are best summed up by little Amelia’s assessment of why her father is unhappy: “Your dog ran away, your family gives you no money, and people are annoyed by you.” Infinitely Polar Bear doesn’t have a real story beyond what it’s like for two little girls to have a “Polar Bear” for a father. But what’s most interesting is how they react to Cameron’s mood swings, be it openly describing their apartment as a “shithole” or matching his outbursts with equal intensity of noise and complaining. Together they keep each other in check and keep the film affecting and charming.
Ruffalo, though, is the real treat, combining the best aspects of his last two performances on his current hot streak: the tempered, amicable tone of his Foxcatcher performance and the more off-the-wall energy of his work in Begin Again. Ruffalo is the tender, comic heart to Infinitely Polar Bear. This movie may be far too soft and inconsequential for it to leave a lasting impact, but Ruffalo’s acting alone cements it as a likeable, crowd-pleasing, little film — one, unfortunately, that not enough people will see.