One way to signpost that a film is taking place in another era is to have everyone constantly smoking cigarettes, especially in places we would never expect it within the context of our modern social contract. Infinitely Polar Bear leans into that one pretty hard.
Surely because it was true to life -- the film is based on the childhood of its writer/director, Maya Forbes -- Mark Ruffalo is smoking a cigarette almost every time we see him on screen.
It's certainly something I've seen in the movies before, but I didn't consider until last night how difficult that really is.
You hear people say "My old man smoked two packs a day," so all of those cigarettes -- 40 of them -- have to fit in somewhere. (Two packs is about the upward limit. You never really hear "three packs a day," though if you did, maybe Ruffalo's character would be that guy.)
If we say that the average person is awake for 17 hours each day -- some more, some less, smokers probably more -- then that means more than two cigarettes an hour for every hour you're awake. In and of itself that doesn't seem totally unmanageable, until you consider that you spend some of that time involved in activities where you just can't do it (showering, for example). Let's say a cigarette every 20 minutes then, throughout the whole day.
If you're keeping up this pace, it does mean you are usually going to be involved in actually doing things while you're smoking. And that's what I noticed about Ruffalo's Cam Stuart.
As in here:
(Okay, I suppose he's not actually doing something in each of these photos, but I couldn't find any shots online of him smoking while repairing a bicycle or fixing breakfast for his kids. And how great is that last shot -- he's still working on one while starting another.)
There are three things that seem difficult about smoking constantly:
1) You'd always be getting smoke in your eyes. Most people who smoke actually spend more time holding the cigarette than they do actually taking a drag from it, but when you smoke constantly, you need your hands free for other things. And with that lit cigarette between your lips, about three inches from your eyes, the smoke would be a constant irritant.
2) The cigarette would always be going out. I suppose expert smokers are better at this, but it seems you need to be holding the cigarette in order to properly drag from it. If you don't drag from it, it goes out. So it would seem you'd need to be constantly lighting a stub of a cigarette ... unless you're just leaving it in there as kind of a safety blanket before ultimately discarding it in favor of a freshie. (I don't think anyone calls new cigarettes "freshies.")
3) It would be hard to talk. If you are trying to keep a cigarette clamped between your lips, you can enunciate no better than a mumble.
But whether it seems unlikely or not, it certainly seems to be something that people actually did at one point. And I suppose in the case of someone like Cam Stuart, based on Maya Forbes' real-life father, the cigarettes were indeed a safety blanket of sorts, to help him cope with his manic depression and emotional instability.
And though this seems like a flippant entry point into discussing the film, I really liked Infinitely Polar Bear. As I started watching it I thought "Uh oh, another indie comedy-drama about an eccentric, dysfunctional family," of which there are literally hundreds. But this film does distinguish itself in a number of ways, which go beyond just the really good performances. One thing I really liked about it is how much the two daughters, whom Cam is trying to raise while his wife (played by Zoe Saldana) is off at business school, are handled as full characters -- real people who have a mature involvement in the plot, not just occasional cute reminders of the stakes. Their situation with their dad has forced them into premature adulthood, as even at the ages of about 12 and 10 they play a major role in taking care of him -- both physically and emotionally. Surely because one of the two is modeled after the director -- and played by her daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky -- the children have a more integral role in the plot than they might if the film were written from the perspective of one of the adults. But there's a difference between experiencing something from a particular perspective and getting young actors to convey that perspective with a sophistication of craft, and Wolodarsky and the actress playing her sister (Ashley Aufderheide) have really helped Forbes pull it off.
On a side note, it wasn't only the odd title, which does get something of an explanation, that drew me to Infinitely Polar Bear. The polar bear is the mascot at my alma mater, Bowdoin College, so it was something I had to watch eventually. If I see another few movies in which the polar bear plays a prominent role, either literally or metaphorically, I can join them with The Golden Compass and give you a "top five movies featuring polar bears."