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Infinitely Polar Bear

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I’m going to start with the elephant…errr, polar bear in the room. This is yet another movie that romanticizes mental illness. It’s one of the many things that turned me off on Silver Linings Playbook.

The bi-polar, manic-depressive chain-smoking (and possibly alcoholic) father is played by Mark Ruffalo in one of the few performances of his that doesn’t work. He overacts in the many annoying contrivances thrown at us, with an overload of indie film tropes – the precocious kids that know more than the parents, the home videos to give us flashbacks, the wacky music, etc.

The much more interesting character is played by Zoe Saldana. She’s always beautiful on screen (even when she’s playing a blue alien). It’s interesting watching her play the character based on writer/director Maya Forbes’ mother in this semi-autobiographical story.

Forbes has her real-life daughter Imogene Wolodarsky playing Amelia – the 12-year-old version of Forbes. The younger sister China (Ashley Aufderheide) is amazing in her role.

The girls’ performances, along with Saldana, are what help this uneven script immensely.

Perhaps the filmmaker is remembering things from the eyes of a child, and more of the fun memories stick. That might include dad making truffles, making a dress for a school play, or getting the snotty kids in the neighborhood to all play together. Sure, we get a few of the awkward moments (talking to strangers), and dangerous episodes. In one such instance, Cameron Stuart (Ruffalo) gets mad at his daughters and goes out drinking all night, leaving them home by themselves. Another time he smashes up the living room.

Why isn’t mom there? Well, in her 30’s, she’s decided she needs to get a degree to provide a better life for her daughters. Since Stuart has a habit of punching bosses, the idea of living in a small apartment in a bad part of town isn’t her idea of paradise. She states it perfectly in this powerful line:

“When white people live in squalor, it’s eccentric. When black people live in squalor, believe me, no one’s charmed.”

There are a few side stories that are interesting: Watching an African-American woman in the ‘70s trying to get a job; and a rich mother (Muriel Gold) that doesn’t want to help out her struggling son and his family…unless you count a Bentley as helping out. The kids’ logic for why they should keep the car is priceless.

Forbes relied too much on Ruffalo and his puppy dog eyes, instead of giving us the scary side of his mental illness. Perhaps she didn’t want to embarrass her family (certain not him, as he died in the late ‘90s).

I thought of two other movies that were so much better: Mark Ruffalo playing a troubled character just out of jail and living with his sister (Laura Linney) in You Can Count on Me.

The movie Me and You and Everyone We Know also popped into my mind. Perhaps that’s because it’s an indie movie that had a black mother leaving a white father, and he seems a little bit nuts.

The script had a lot of tonal shifts that don’t work, and it got rather manipulative. All that being said, there was enough here that did work and you’re never bored watching it.

The couple has a wonderful chemistry together, and the children are terrific.

It gets 3 stars out of 5.

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