January 22, 2010

Extraordinary Measures

And over here, I've outlined how we manage to sustain our careers.
It's a complex formula.

Grade: C

Director: Tom Vaughen

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, and Keri Russell

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

To paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel, “Where have you gone, Han Solo?”

Appearing as a literal reflection of his bygone glory, it is telling that Harrison Ford’s most memorable recent film performance was the brief glimpse of his Star Wars star-maker in (500) Days of Summer. In recent years, Ford’s onscreen offerings have been a series of forgettable, phoned-in variations on the same crotchety curmudgeon persona.

In Extraordinary Measures, Ford accomplishes the near-impossible. He not only convinces us look back fondly on the halcyon days of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but he also makes us yearn for the blessed sanctuary of scenes in which costar Brendan Fraser appears without him.

Based on true events, the story behind Extraordinary Measures is undoubtedly inspiring. Fraser plays John Crowley, a biotechnology executive whose two youngest children are afflicted with Pompe disease, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder with no known cure. Facing the impending death of his children, Crowley reaches out to Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a research scientist living in flyover country and one of the leading theorists on Pompe disease. Crowley and Stonehill team up to supply the respective bucks and brains behind a biotech startup dedicated to discovering and expediting a treatment for Pompe’s.

Director Tom Vaughan merits credit for a respectful depiction of the interplay amongst the Crowley family. In contrast to other films that often wallow in every manipulative, heart-wrenching symptom and setback, time is spent showing the Crowleys as steadfast parents trying to help their children lead the most normal lives possible. Likewise, even when wheelchair-bound or bedridden, Pompe sufferers Megan and Patrick are cast as precocious and mischievous – in other words, they act like regular kids.

Where the film begins to falter is when the family drama segues into a medical drama revolving around Crowley and Co.’s foray through the financial/bureaucratic labyrinth of medical research and development. This is heady, informative stuff in the right cinematic hands. Here, however, it’s presented more like a film adaptation of “Biotech Startups for Dummies” shoehorned into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.

From one scene to another, John Crowley is either a devoted, undaunted dad or a resourceful businessman. But, the film does not attempt to effectively bridge the gap between these two sides of the same character until the film’s final act, when Crowley and Stonehill cut some bioethical corners to ensure Megan and Patrick take part in clinical trials of a possible treatment. Until then, it is a rather discomforting to watch Crowley celebrate earning millions off his biotech startup while his children continue to deteriorate.

But, the real problem is deciphering what purpose Stonehill serves in this story. Seeing how the screenplay is based a book by Geeta Anand named “The Cure,” it is no shocker where this story is heading. And, the real-life Stonehill, Dr. William Canfield, was probably instrumental in any medical breakthrough. Within the context of this film, however, what’s surprising is that Stonehill is not ultimately responsible for the enzyme developed to treat Pompe’s. He’s just an irascible, eccentric egghead who doesn’t return telephone calls left by the parents of sick children pleading for Stonehill’s help in his chosen area of expertise. He yells at and alienates his family, friends, and coworkers. And, he holds his specialized knowledge for ransom hoping some desperate dad will bankroll his exit out of a low-paying college research job.

Right after Crowley throws caution to the wind by leaving a lucrative corporate career to relocate his family to Nebraska and start his business with Stonehill, he visits the doctor to discuss strategy in advance of an upcoming meeting with potential venture capitalists. Instead, Stonehill just heaves a file folder full of crumpled papers at him and leaves to go bass fishing. The scene is intended to make Stonehill look folksy; instead, he just comes off like a jerk.

Extraordinary Measures is the first movie released by the production subsidiary CBS Films. With its formulaic plotting, plodding pacing, and even the actual use of Eric Clapton’s “Change The World,” it looks more like something usually broadcasted on the company’s TV network arm. Instead of medical miracles, the film’s title more aptly describes what’s necessary at this point to resuscitate Harrison Ford’s ailing career.

Neil Morris

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