Existence can be perplexing. If you’re like me, there are countless aspects of the organic and inorganic and intangible realms that are hard or impossible to figure out. Now, some of these subjects are of high importance, such as global warming or one’s relationships with one’s fellow species members. Others aren’t worth devoting too much brain power to. Naturally, those are the ones I gravitate towards. A few days ago, for example, I decided to look into the degrees of success that a couple of movies that I’ve recently seen in theaters have had at the domestic box office. Our planet’s fate did not hang in the balance as I did my research. I’m talking about Infinitely Polar Bear and The End Of The Tour, smart and perceptive movies aimed at the art house market. Infinitely seemed to me to be far more of a potential crowd pleaser than The End. Yet it has been attracting far fewer dollars in the USA than The End. Here’s why this surprised me:
Infinitely Polar Bear is a boisterous movie, a full-of-life, family-oriented comedic drama and to a large extent a feel-gooder. What’s more, it centers around a wild and bigger-than-life character, beautifully played by Mark Ruffalo. The End Of The Tour is and has none of that. It is slow-moving and understated and wry. And cerebral too. Its main character is charismatic, but in a geeky and repressed sort of way. Infinitely has flash. The End doesn’t.
As we see, I’m no Kreskin when it comes to predicting people’s tastes in movies. What else is new? Still, though I enjoyed both, in a way I’m glad that The End Of The Tour is outdoing Infinitely Polar Bear financially, because I think that The End is better. I’d give it at least three and a half out of four stars. To Infinitely I’d grant maybe three. There were aspects of Infinitely that rang a bit false to me. I had no such problems with The End Of The Tour.
One big thing that Infinitely and The End have in common is their aim to portray real life people and events. Another similarity is that the main figure in each is weighted with psychological problems. The End Of The Tour’s core takes place in 1996, when a Rolling Stone magazine writer, David Lipsky (a medium octane turn by laser-eyed Jesse Eisenberg) tagged along with David Foster Wallace during the tail end of the promotional tour for Wallace’s recently-published and massive (1,000+ pages) novel, Infinite Jest. Lipsky’s assignment was to profile Wallace for Rolling Stone, and he filled many cassette tapes with Wallace interviews. The End is drawn from the interviews and from Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which was Lipsky’s 2010 book about his Wallace adventures.
No supernova explosions took place during Wallace’s and Lipsky’s five days together, but in a subdued and riveting way their conversations soared. I’m pretty certain that The End mirrors reality in this and most respects. The wary Wallace opened up more to Lipsky than he might have wanted, partly due to some slings and probes that got under his skin. Wallace talked about the love-hate feelings he was developing about the fame that Infinite Jest was thrusting upon him. He talked about the dehumanizing effects of technology on modern man, about the place of the creative person in the world. He touched upon many other topics, including his struggles with mental depression (sadly, he lost this battle in 2008, when he committed suicide). I found The End’s depiction of all of this very moving and kind of exhilarating. I was totally smitten by Jason Segel’s portrait of Wallace as a shaggy dog, a pretty brilliant and mostly nice guy. If Segel isn’t nominated for an Oscar he’ll deserve to say “I wuz robbed.”
Infinitely Polar Bear is Maya Forbes’ baby. Forbes has been a writer for the big and small screens (Monsters Vs. Aliens and episodes of The Larry Sanders Show). For Infinitely, she wrote the screenplay and took her first stance ever behind the camera. The movie tells the story of part of her life, zeroing in on the late 1970s when preteen Maya and her younger sister were raised in semi-poverty in Cambridge, Massachusetts by their bipolar father. The two girls had been living with Maya’s underemployed mother Peggy. Peggy, though, came to decide that the only way to lift the family from its lowly monetary straits was to obtain a marketable postgraduate degree, a Master of Business Administration. This pursuit resulted in her relocation to New York City, Columbia University being the only school that approved her application. Peggy hesitantly deposited the girls with her husband, the girls’ father, Donald Cameron (“Cam”) Forbes, and visited them on as many weekends as she could.
Infinitely Polar Bear is bursting with energy. Ruffalo’s Cam captures the screen, especially during his manic phases, which seem to be far more frequent than his self-absorbed and down moods. Maya Forbes’ screenplay paints Cam as an admirable father, flawed and unpredictable and psychologically challenged, for certain, but there for his girls. Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana (Peggy) make a believable, though separated, couple. Imogene Wolodarsky (Maya’s real life daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide are so feisty and delightful as the young sisters, I was convinced that they gave Ruffalo his wings.
So what about the movie slightly rubbed me the wrong way? For one, it felt a few tads too glossy, too Hollywoodized. And I’d have liked to know what the family arrangements were as the years went on. For instance, did Maya’s parents ever again join as one? Forbes didn’t say, not even in a few written sentences on the screen before the credits rolled. And what’s with changing the family’s names? In Infinitely Polar Bear they all are surname Stuart, not Forbes. Some first names were altered too. In interviews surrounding her movie, Maya Forbes has said that she wanted to present a true portrait of her family. I wish she had started by assigning the screen characters their correct appellations.
(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)
(If you enjoyed this article, then please consider sharing it)