The Farrago of Infinitely Polar Bear


Farrago is a synonym for hodgepodge — “a confused mix,” per the dictionary. Today, we went to see Infinitely Polar Bear, a biopic of sorts about a bipolar Bostonian and the eighteen months he spent caring for his two young daughters while their mother went to business school, in New York. The movie itself is not a farrago, but Cameron Forbes, its titular bear, certainly is. In the beginning of the movie, he’s full-blown manic, pulling his daughters out of school for a woodsy gambol after being fired for a job he’d only briefly held, then ripping the ignition switch out of the family car wearing only a red speedo while his wife and daughters tremble — in winter coats — in the backseat. Most of the film is him attempting to keep a lid on the mania; his daughters help with this quest by demanding structure and new sponges and flamenco skirts and scolding him for his spiraling piles of old telephones and bicycle parts and his guilessly outgoing behavior, which tended to send neighbors scuttling in the opposite direction.

Farrago comes part and parcel from Latin, where it meant a “mix of grains for animals.” (Far is the latin word for grain, hence farro and barley.) The Forbes family is very much a mix: Cameron is the nutty scion of one of Boston’s richest, Brahmin-iest families (evident in his shetlands and tam-o-shanters and inability to replace the old and worn out and broke-down); his wife, Maggie, is a midwestern African American, a fiercely driven steel magnolia of a woman who rose to a breadwinning challenge she hadn’t wanted, and then surpassed it, getting her MBA from Columbia and landing a brokerage job at E.F Hutton. One of Cameron and Maggie’s daughters (who are both fantastically, spitfiringly played) looks white, the other looks black, though race is addressed far less in Polar Bear than sex.

Infinitely Polar Bear is, above all, a tribute to Cameron, whom Mark Ruffalo plays with characteristic shambolic charm and a lot of searing, thrashing frustration. It is a tribute to Cam and also to Maggie and a testament, really, to how good their parenting really was, despite Cam’s erratic moods and Maggie’s physical absence.

Polar Bear takes place between 1978-9; nearly forty years later, the Forbes’ are still perhaps a farrago, but mostly in a good way: China, the older daughter, is the lead singer of the jazzy, smoky pop band Pink Martini; Maya, the younger daughter, is an accomplished screenwriter and directed Polar Bear, and Maya’s own daughter, Imogene, plays Maya (called Faith) in the film. Cameron, however spent many of his later years at McLean, before passing away, of pancreatic caner, in 1998.

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