'Extraordinary Measures': Incurably Sentimental
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Extraordinary Measures" feels like both a big-screen adaptation of a "60 Minutes" story and a small-screen TV movie-of-the-week. Neither of these is coincidental; the first film from CBS TV's new feature-films production company, "Extraordinary Measures" plays out with familiar and too-familiar moments writ large. And while it's hard to argue with the spirit and the sentiment behind the movie (never give up, there's always hope, science and faith can achieve miracles), it's still worth noting that, regardless of its direction, this road paved with good intentions is also fairly uneven and shabbily made.
Based on a true story, "Extraordinary Measures" revolves around the Crowley family; dad John (Brendan Fraser) and mom Aileen (Keri Russell) are raising their three children, two of who are afflicted with Pompe's syndrome. Pompe's is an incurable MS-like disease that means their bodies can't break down glycogen, the body's natural fuel, which accumulates in the muscles of its victims, enlarges their organs, leaves them wheelchair-bound and means that they will be very, very lucky to live even nine years. John works in marketing at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a major pharmaceutical company, and spends his nights combing the literature and journals for any possible good news. And he finds it in the work of Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), a University of Nebraska researcher whose work on enzyme replacement therapy holds some promise. But Stonehill's underfunded and under the gun. When John Crowley goes to see Stonehill, the good (but not that good) doctor explains the facts: "The University of Nebraska pays their football coach more than my whole science department."
You might be pardoned for hoping that the people behind "Extraordinary Measures" would, and could, do something interesting with all this. Crowley works for a pharmaceutical company that calculates the profit margins it'll extract from its drugs over time as an important factor in what it chooses to research. Stonehill's work is underfunded and underappreciated. But "Extraordinary Measures" isn't interested in taking a look at what's wrong with American medicine and science; it's only here to show us one time that American medicine and science got it right, like the proud owner of a broken clock insisting that if we stick around long enough, it'll be correct at some point.
The performances are locked into the inspirational, familiar groove of the material; Fraser gets to mist up when he thinks about losing his kids and occasionally rage against fate with his wet eyes, while Ford gets to rage against the way science is confounded by blind bean-counters and nosy regulatory agencies, occasionally misting up when he thinks of Fraser's kids. We, of course, know why Fraser is sad: His kids are dying, which in turn makes us sad with every medical crisis scene to indicate things are serious and every birthday party montage to indicate the passage of time. But we're never really told why Ford's Stonehill is such a snapping, snarling ball of anger. Instead, the two actors trade on their well-worn (and occasionally worn-out) screen personae to give us a completely predictable double-act: Mopey and Moody, Sad-Face and Sour-Puss.
But, under the direction of Tom Vaughan, the formula is the point. And, as others have pointed out, the opening credits explain how the film is adapted from a book called "The Cure," so that's a bit of a give-away as well. Vaughan previously made "What Happens in Vegas," and it's somehow both reassuring and depressing that he can apply the same close comprehension of cliché and formula to heart-warming moral uplift that he did to funny-bone-tickling romantic comedy. There's a moment in "Extraordinary Measures" when Fraser's desperate to raise $500,000 he has promised Ford for his research, and his eldest son, unaffected by Pompe, tries to get his dad's attention as Fraser frantically calls around fund-raising. When he does get his dad's attention, it's so he can hand over a wad of bills he made from selling his skateboard so his sister and brother might one day have "their special medicine." It's a sympathetic gesture. It's a touching gesture. It's an irrelevant gesture in the face of what has to be done. Watching "Extraordinary Measures," a movie that exists not to examine health or science but rather to strip-mine every possible emotional moment out of one family's story of triumph and tragedy, is like watching that scene on a loop for two hours. Your heart can't help but be moved. Your brain can't help but groan.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.