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Extraordinary Measures
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Extra-Ordinary Machine"
1 stars

“Extraordinary Measures” is the first release from CBS Films, a new feature film off-shoot of the venerable television network. As it turns out, this is completely appropriate because the film resembles nothing so much as it does the run-of-the-mill made-for-TV movie melodramas that they and other networks used to regularly back in the days before they realized that they could make more of a profit by airing reality shows and endless permutations of the “CSI” franchise. The trouble is that it resembles those bland pieces of hackwork in every possible way and not even the star presence of Harrison Ford can do much to juice up the proceedings.

Loosely inspired by a true story (we’ll get to that in a bit) and based on Geeta Anand’s book “The Cure,” “Extraordinary Measures” stars Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell and John and Aileen Crowley, the parents of two children afflicted with Pompe’s disease, a rare and fatal genetic disorder linked to muscular dystrophy. As the story opens, the kids are entering the final stages of the disease and the evil and heartless doctors inform their parents that they have maybe a year or so left to live and, all things considered, they should “see this as a blessing.” In response, John starts straying away from his job as an executive at Bristol Myers to look into what scientific work is being done in the Pompe field and stumbles upon the work of Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a biochemist at the University of Nebraska who seems to be the closest to coming up with a cure. John flies out to Nebraska to ask Stonehill for his help and at first, Stonehill demurs--his lab doesn’t remotely have the amount of funding needed to pull it off and even if it did, all of his past work has been theoretical and has never actually helped anyone. Before long, however, he leaves academia and he and John form their own biotech start-up designed to put a cure into practice. There, they begin working around the clock to create a viable vaccine but infighting among the other doctors and investors brought into the project, not to mention Stonehill’s rather prickly manner towards others, threatens to derail the project and John’s dream of saving his children long before any practical results can be reached.

Those of you with longer memories may recall “Lorenzo’s Oil,” a wonderful 1992 that also told the true story of an ordinary couple bucking the medical establishment in a desperate attempt to rescue their child from the clutches of a rare and cruel disease. Although there were many good things about that film--the excellent performances from Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, the gripping direction from George Miller and the fact that it was a tear-jerker that actually earned its big emotional moments instead of simply trotting out sickly kids every time it needed a dramatic moment--one of the best things about it was that it took complicated story material and deployed it in a manner that maintained clear and efficient narrative and emotional arcs without dumbing things down in an effort to make it more playable for mass audiences. “Extraordinary Measures,” on the other hand, is a film that has had many of the key facts regarding the story changed around right from the get-go in order to wrestle it into a conventional narrative (there is no such person as Dr. Robert Stonehill, for starters) but by moving it further and further away from the facts, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs and director Tom Vaughn eventually have no idea what kind of story they are trying to tell.

At some points, it seemingly wants to be a gripping medical drama about a race for a cure and the conflicts that can arise between researchers who often seem to be working at cross-purposes but it sketches those elements out in such broad and meaningless terms that you never get the sense that you are learning anything. At other points, it wants to be the wrenching story of a couple facing the unthinkable loss of two of their children but the family relationship is depicted so sketchily that they have little impact as well. It also wants to be the inspiring story of one man, John Crowley, who managed to take on the system and save the lives of his kids but he goes about it in such a strange and ethically challenged manner that it doesn’t even work in that regard. Let me put it this way--in a film like this, when the heartless guy in a suit calmly and carefully explains to our damp-eyed hero that he has violated any number of rules and ethical codes in his desperate effort to get his kids included in the first clinical trials for the drug, we shouldn’t be sitting there thinking that what he is saying actually makes sense.

The inability to find a coherent narrative structure is by far the single biggest flaw of “Extraordinary Measures” but it is nowhere near the only one. The characters have been drawn in the thinnest manner possible without any of the complexities that might have made them more interesting--with his tunnel-vision approach to work that is so focused on regarding Pompe’s disease simply as an academic problem that he fails to acknowledge the real people suffering from it, Stonehill could have been an intriguing variation on the character Ford played in “The Mosquito Coast” but instead, all we get is an irascible grump whose most distinct character trait is that he likes to listen to loud classic rock while working to prove that he is the rebellious sort. The screenplay is a collection of clunky scenes and clunkier lines of dialogue--although the bit where Stonehill screams “I already work around the clock!” has already been mocked by many who have seen it in the ads, it is actually outdone by the bit where he points at some bean counter and yells “Get the hell out of my lab!” The direction from Vaughn is as flat and unmemorable as can be--perhaps the price one pays when one puts their gripping medical melodrama in the hands of the guy who directed “What Happens in Vegas.” The performances are pretty much undistinguished across the board with the worst of the bunch being Brendan Fraser, whose work here is really quite awful--he comes across as so gooney throughout that it is difficult to believe that people would entrust him with a child-proof cap, let alone the money needed to start his own bioresearch firm. As for Harrison Ford, this won’t go down as one of his more notable performances, mostly due to the deficiencies in the screenplay, but to give him credit, he does put a little more of an effort than he has in most of his recent work.

“Extraordinary Measures” is a drag from start to finish--the kind of instantly forgettable film that seems to have been designed to play in empty multiplexes in the early weeks of the year before the movies that people actually want to see finally start coming out. The only possible explanation for its existence is that Harrison Ford still regrets turning down the role in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and wants to prove that he can make his own bit of socially conscious cinema as well. While the results aren’t quite as dire as his last attempt at this, the singularly awful “Crossing Over,” the fact that he skipped out on a complex and fascinating work like “Traffic” but eagerly signed on for something as coarse and simplistic as this suggests that his taste in regards to material of this type is questionable at best. “Traffic” was a film that was truly extraordinary while this one, to liberally quote another, better film, is merely extra-ordinary.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19251&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/22/10 00:00:00
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User Comments

12/04/11 Pamela White shows the dark side of orphan conditions 4 stars
12/21/10 millersxing less than the sum of its incongruous parts 2 stars
1/31/10 Misty more informative than moving 3 stars
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  22-Jan-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 18-May-2010


  DVD: 18-May-2010

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