Friday, January 22, 2010

Extraordinary Measures: Merely ordinary

Extraordinary Measures (2010) • View trailer for Extraordinary Measures
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.22.10
Buy DVD: Extraordinary Measures • Buy Blu-Ray: Extraordinary Measures [Blu-ray]

The quest for medical miracles, although obviously compelling to those intimately involved, can be a tough sell cinematically; the real-world process is frustrating and grindingly slow, the obsessed, lab-coated doctors and researchers generally far from the big-screen archetypes likely to bring us into the story.

The usual "solutions," as a result, involve the infusion of melodrama and the fabrication of fictitious characters; the resulting narrative  at this point merely "suggested by" actual events, as opposed to rigorously factual  can turn into an eye-rolling TV movie designed to manipulate more than educate.
Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford, left) increasingly resents what he perceives
as partner John Crowley's (Brendan Fraser) bean-counting "corporatized"
decisions, believing that pure research is being sacrificed on the altar of
"acceptable loss." It's a frequent argument in today's biotech field, and one of
this film's most persuasive dramatic components.

Fortunately, Extraordinary Measures doesn't succumb to such shortcomings ... at least, not completely.

Robert Nelson Jacobs' screenplay  drawn from the book The Cure, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geeta Anand, who in turn based it on her own August 2003 Wall Street Journal article  does an impressive job of detailing the frankly insane financial and corporate constraints under which miracle drugs are developed these days. The saga is fascinating and frequently overwhelming, particularly with respect to the notion that any "regular citizen" could survive, let alone make progress, in such a process.

Our hearts are won as well by Brendan Fraser's persuasive and wholly sympathetic starring performance as John Crowley, who with his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) have been coping with having two children  out of three  who suffer from Pompe Disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder somewhat related to both muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's fatal, with most children dying before their ninth birthday.

As the film opens, Megan (Meredith Droeger, a genuine charmer) is celebrating her eighth birthday. Patrick (Diego Velazquez), not quite two years younger, has the same disease; both children require wheelchairs, breathing devices and constant monitoring by trained nurses. First-born son John Jr. (Sam Hall) is completely healthy.

Crowley, having educated himself to every possible degree, is drawn repeatedly to the theoretical research of Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), whose efforts are largely ignored in the tiny lab he holds together at a Nebraska university. Ford plays Stonehill as a crusty eccentric with two ex-wives and a preference for working with loud music blaring: a guy who can't really be bothered with "people skills."

Crowley, in great contrast, has the smooth polish and professional patter of somebody quite comfortable in the corporate world.

He also has passion, which Stonehill quickly perceives; the doctor recognizes that a desperate father quite possibly could be the financial rainmaker that he has needed for so long.

And, so, an unusual alliance is born: one that moves both men into the rarefied universe of biotech firms and venture capitalists. It quickly becomes clear  and this is where the story's essential drama works the best  that passion and medical talent aren't enough. Every necessary step of the way, Crowley and Stonehill find themselves forced to lose a bit more control of a process that began as a means of saving Megan and Patrick.

The prickly relationship between Crowley and Stonehill is the film's most entertaining component, and Fraser and Ford certainly play off each other well. Jacobs deftly blends these amusingly snarky encounters with the story's more serious elements; we're never allowed to forget that two small children remain in mortal peril, but at the same time director Tom Vaughan doesn't wallow in their misery.

Instead, he chooses his moments carefully, as when Patrick discovers that his right wrist no longer has the strength to grasp and toss a bit of bread to ducks in a pond. That's a throat-gulper.

So is co-star Courtney B. Vance's all-too-brief performance as the father of two more children with Pompe: as memorable an appearance, despite its brevity, as Viola Davis' Oscar-nominated cameo in 2008's Doubt.

On the other hand...

The escalating arguments between Crowley and Stonehill begin to sound contrived, as if the film seeks ways to pit the two men against each other. It also seems highly unlikely that each would make key financial/research decisions without consulting the other: something that happens not just once or twice, but several times. That's just ridiculous; the bond established between these two men, early on, would have involved more trust.

Matters aren't helped by Russell, who's little more than a blank slate in the entire movie. Young Droeger is a much better and more convincing actress; we never cease to believe that Megan is a vivacious, tough but heart-breakingly fragile little girl. Russell, in great contrast, never looks, sounds or behaves like the parent of such a child. She reads her lines woodenly, with a consistent absence of emotion.

I blame the director. Vaughan isn't seasoned enough for a film with this dramatic heft, and he clearly doesn't know how to draw a better performance from Russell. Really, what made CBS Films think they could trust this sensitive story to a director who most recently unleashed last year's moron romantic comedy, What Happens in Vegas?

Then, too, Jacobs' script occasionally indulges in stupid stuff, as when John and Aileen get "caught" in living room foreplay as the day nurse comes through the door. The set-up and execution of this scene are just wrong, and all three actors look embarrassed while delivering their dumb lines.

At about this point, savvy viewers will begin to wonder precisely how much of this script truly is based on actual events.

Allow me to elaborate, drawing from Anand's original Wall Street Journal article:

John Crowley's character arc is pretty accurate; he and wife Aileen have the three children as portrayed here. But in real life, Crowley threw himself into the world of biotech firms and venture capitalists much faster: very soon after 15-month-old Megan was diagnosed with Pompe.

The subsequent chain of events took years to unfold, not the mere 12 month timeline suggested by this film.

And this is key: Throughout the entire process, Crowley had far more control than Brendan Fraser's often hapless and frequently overwhelmed portrayal suggests.

The notion that Megan would be this strong and perky, as this film opens, is wishful thinking.

Oh, and the biggie: Dr. Robert Stonehill doesn't exist. Ford's character here is  in movie parlance, and quoting from the film's production notes  "a composite of the number of doctors for whom Crowley raised money."

Which makes the film's closing "where are they now" tableau quite irritating, since it baldly lies when claiming that "Dr. Robert Stonehill" has gone on to bigger and better medical fame.

OK, fine; it's a movie, not a documentary. Dramatic license must be taken, and events must be compressed in order to seem reasonable within the framework of a 105-minute film. But I'd argue that the degree to which this works depends on persuasive acting and a script that sounds genuine, even when it isn't.

The Blind Side, as a recent example, plays fast and loose with small stuff throughout, but it never loses our hearts and minds; the entire cast, led by Sandra Bullock, is thoroughly convincing. But the ensemble package isn't quite as strong in Extraordinary Measures; Jacobs' script slips a few too many times, and Russell's acting vacuum hurts considerably.

No question: This is a heart-warming, well-intentioned and at times thoroughly engrossing film. It's the sort of family-friendly drama that should be made more often.

But preferably by a better director.

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