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Sundance Review: Phony And Forgettable 'Infinitely Polar Bear' Starring Mark Ruffalo & Zoe Saldana

Reviews
by James Rocchi
January 19, 2014 5:56 PM
9 Comments
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With its based-on-the-director’s-life pedigree and stars Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, "Infinitely Polar Bear"—horrible title aside—sounds like many Sundance films past and present: a family struggles with mental illness, trying to keep one person whole while also keeping—or failing to keep—the family together. And after writing such good-to-indifferent big Hollywood product like "The Rocker," "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," you can hardly fault writer-director Maya Forbes for trying to create something a little more substantive and a little less glib. And yet, even based on her experiences, "Infinitely Polar Bear" is so phony that you can imagine the production budget being made up of three-dollar bills; it treats severe mental illness as a series of quirky, fun-sy tics; the circumstances of its characters are tortuously contrived; and every child character seems not like a real, living child but rather a 40-year-old with a sparkling wit who’s been struck by a shrink ray.

Set in 1978, the film begins with a family; dad Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) is telling his daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolarski) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) that they don’t have to go to school. He got fired, so they can pick mushrooms and explore the forest and join him in his freedom. His wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana), unnerved by Cam’s mania, locks herself and the kids in the car while Cam bicycles around the cold fall field in a matching red speedo and headband. And while seizing on this one detail is picayune, it’s worth noting that the degree of design and effort that went into that moment is actually what ruins it. Mental illness is a lot of things, but puckishly color-coordinated is not one of them.

Maya Forbes' "Infinitely Polar Bear"

After a stay in an institution and a halfway house, with Maggie and the kids having moved to the city, Cam comes back just in time for Maggie to leave; in a last-ditch attempt to change the family’s circumstances, she’s applied for a Columbia MBA, and gotten in on a scholarship. If she pushes it, she can be done in 18 months, and she’ll come back every weekend. Cam will have to take care of the kids and himself, neither of which he’s especially qualified to do. Cam comes from a long line of well-to-do Boston blue-bloods, but the family matriarch who controls the funds won’t give Cam the money to get the kids to a better school—even though she pays his rent—in a bit of hair-splitting that seems solely to help the thin plotting stay propped up.

And this then might be the problem with "Infinitely Polar Bear" at heart; in her director’s notes, Forbes explains how all of the above—manic father, long-distance business school mother, a wealthy family’s weird ethics about work and effort—were part and parcel of her own life. In life, the truth is in itself enough; on the movie screen, however, the truth must also be plausible, and Forbes’ script simply cannot make the things she lived through alive for us in anything but the most glib, shallow and contrived way.

Performers Ruffalo and Saldana are both charismatic and easy to watch, but their performances feel both shallow and showy, underdone and overblown. Ruffalo is the manic pixie dream guy here—living and tender, brash and loud, demonstrative and friendly to a very real fault. Compared to some other honest and heartfelt performances of mental illness in even other Indie and Sundance films—Damian Lewis in "Keane," perhaps, or Peter Greene in "Clean, Shaven," both by Lodge Kerrigan—Ruffalo makes manic depression look huggable and snuggly, not the terrifying thing it actually is for its victims and those around them. Saldana gets to play dress-up (her job interview ensemble is so Faye Dunaway, it’s hilarious) and emote, but she can’t make us believe in her or her choices. And as for Wolarski (Forbes’ own daughter) and Aufderheide, well, these are very young people, so let it simply be said that the fault in their performances is not theirs, but rather the script’s.

Again, this is Forbes’ life and this is her version of her memories—but even so, you have to think there’s a little too much misty water-coloring going on here and not enough of the stark black-and-white realities of family, child raising, mental illness or all of the other concerns (race, gender politics) that Forbes touches upon lightly, if at all, before getting back to yet another scene of Ruffalo being cute until he’s scary until he’s cute again and Saldana being tormented by her tough choices. "Infinitely Polar Bear" is a classic example of a major fatal flaw in filmmaking: failing to make sure your movie actually deals with what it’s actually about. Even with being drawn from life, "Infinitely Polar Bear" feels less like a portrait and more like a cartoon. [D+]

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9 Comments

  • Tyler | January 27, 2014 9:52 PMReply

    I can't believe what I'm reading. Out of the 25 films I saw at the festival, Infinitely Polar Bear was easily one of the highlights and the best US Dramatic contender (disclosure- the only others I saw in this category were: Life After Beth, Whiplash, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The Skeleton Twins and Camp X-Ray). There was a few issues with the pacing and narrative, but those performances were all amazing - especially the children. I know it's terrible thing to say so early (borderline sinful perhaps?) but I'm calling an Oscar nom for Ruffalo here. It's the perfect kind of material that does well with voters and easily the best performance of his career.

  • Alexis | January 20, 2014 9:59 PMReply

    ""Infinitely Polar Bear"—horrible title aside—"
    When Maya Flores and her sister took their father to the hospital after he suffered a manic episode, one of the forms asked for his diagnosis (bipolar, schizophrenic, etc.). Instead of checking bipolar, he checked other and wrote infinitely polar bear. So there's that..

  • tom | January 20, 2014 2:11 PMReply

    Couldn't be more wrong. One of the best movies of the festival thus far.

  • susan | January 20, 2014 2:10 PMReply

    you're a moron.

  • Jay | January 20, 2014 11:00 AMReply

    I'm all for reviewers being open and honest about their views and good films sometimes get bad reviews and readers can sort them out. But this review is so mean spirited and inaccurate you have to think the reviewer is either dealing with his own mommy daddy issues or has a hidden agenda. I was at Eccles for the premiere. This film was deeply and at times painfully moving. There was a rare electricity in the theater as we laughed and often cried together. When the film ended nearly everyone immediately jumped to their feet for a thunderous and emotional applause. This film was beautifully shot, funny and warm. It was a triumph of what you can do on a tiny independent film budget. To attack the film as phony and forgettable is trite and unfair. For most who saw it the opposite is true. The attacks on the actors, in particular the child actors are completely out of line. Indie wire should consider the motivations behind this review, and reconsider its employment of the writer.

  • James Rocchi | January 20, 2014 2:16 PM

    While I respect your right to disagree with me, please note that there is not, as you can read in the text above, anything even close to an ad hominem attack on the young actors:

    "And as for Wolarski (Forbes’ own daughter) and Aufderheide, well, these are very young people, so let it simply be said that the fault in their performances is not theirs, but rather the script’s."

    As for the film being 'painfully moving,' some people cry at Apple commercials. I don't have to hail them as art, either.

  • Hammy | January 20, 2014 3:55 AMReply

    expected. Playlist also hated on 'Can a song save your life'

  • pete | January 20, 2014 1:11 AMReply

    ' Performers Ruffalo and Saldana are both charismatic and easy to watch, but their performances feel both shallow and showy, underdone and overblown. "

    That is the way I felt about the overrated performances in American Hustle .

  • Pete | January 29, 2014 5:52 AM

    Those characters were supposed to be larger than life! I don't see why this is so hard for people to understand. You want only reserved acting in cinema go watch Remains of the Day.

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