“When one has not had a good father, one must create one.”

— Frederich Nietzsche

Here is the story of Cameron Forbes, slightly fictionalized, but probably 98 percent accurate. Cam was a brilliant man who suffered from bi-polar disorder and manic depression. There are a lot of current magazine stories out there about the real Cam and his Boston Brahmin family, and about this cinematic one, his black wife, Peggy, and two daughters, Maya and China.

But we get the movie version of Cam, known here as Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) a case of a nice rich guy in a tennis game between two kinds of luck, good and bad. Cam had the good luck to be born into one of Boston’s wealthiest families. Sadly, bad luck smashes one over the net, hitting him with bipolar disorder and manic depression.

Good luck rallies back with his meeting Maggie (Zoe Saldana) one of those angels God sends to rescue his broken, lost children who have gone off the tracks and are beginning to hurt other people.

Cam and Maggie live a life of organized chaos in a shabby apartment in Cambridge, with their two daughters, Amelia (Forbes’ real daughter Imogene Woldarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).

Rich, slightly senile grandma Gaga sends money down the tube to him to pay for the girls’ welfare, but little else.

When we meet Cam, he is in and out of hospitals. He fills the family apartment with wires and tubes and broken machine parts, as he works on mindless inventions.

Much of the time he is just a slightly comic Groucho Marx, charming and full of life.

Cam is so nice he terrorizes his apartment house neighbors by insisting on helping with their groceries and laundry. “Ask me in,” he says, “and I’ll move that piano for you.”

His daughters adore him. Who wouldn’t? It’s like living with the guide from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” But his behavior embarrasses them around the neighborhood and school. Still, like their sainted mom, they tolerate him.

Soon, Cam gets worse and is given to periodic breakdowns, where he bikes around Cambridge in red Speedo underwear and bandanas, showing up at his cousin’s E.F. Hutton office in shorts.

He is finally dragged away and committed. When he is finally allowed to come home, the real nightmare begins. Maggie decides to go down to New York, where she has been accepted at Columbia to get her master’s degree. It’s not easy. She knows it’s like leaving the girls with a charming but unstable circus clown.

Reluctantly, she has to do it. What could go wrong? Everything, and everything does.

We’ve come a long way in movies from 1947’s Michael Curtiz film of the whacky, lovable “Life With Father,” starring William Powell. There’s nothing here to laugh at, nothing to feel good about. There seems to be no happy ending to Cam’s world of manic depression and bipolar disorder. There is the victim and the collaterally damaged.

Ruffalo does his best work yet here, as a character we love, but who soon gets on our nerves. He expertly and clearly moves through the check list of crazy antics Forbes has supplied him from her painful playbook of memories.

Zoe Saldana, blessed with talent and beauty, glows brightly in this role of a caring, loving woman who has drawn a joker out of the deck, but one she refuses to toss back on the table. It’s a far cry from her role as Neytiri in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

The girls, Woldarsky and Aufderheide, who were clearly intended to brighten the darkness of the story, walk away with the film, and that’s hard to do when you’re working with Ruffalo and Saldana. You won’t recognize Keir Dullea as Cam’s brother Stuart, I betcha.

Maya Forbes is clearly a director to watch, and Bobby Bukowski’s camera keeps pace with a fast moving cast.

The beauty, though, is watching Ruffalo keep pace with those two kids.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.