On DVD: Extraordinary Measures

Like a lot of made-for-TV movies, Extraordinary Measures (which was released theatrically) fails to live up to the compelling true story it was based on. Taking a real-life tale of struggle and triumph over a debilitating disease, and forcing it into a conventional three-act structure jam-packed with all manner of clichés, Extraordinary Measures is leeched of reality's unpredictability and the precarious life-or-death stakes that the participants faced.

John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) is a Portland, Oregon, pharmaceutical executive with a charming wife (Keri Russell), living in his own suburban paradise. However, two of his three young children suffer from Pompe disease, a genetic condition that erodes the muscles and nerves of its victims. The two younger Crowleys are not expected to live past age 9. But John is determined to seek a cure for the disease. He contacts Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) at the University of Nebraska after reading some journal articles by Stonehill that detailed his research on enzyme therapy. Their relationship has a rocky start. Stonehill is cranky and abrupt, prone to impatience. Content to work alone but wary of receding grant support, Stonehill agrees to enter into a partnership with Crowley to develop a drug to treat Pompe disease. Forming a corporation is a challenge, but it comes as no surprise when Crowley and Stonehill finally reach success.

It's an odd shame that "disease of the week" films have such a stigma attached to them - that they have a tendency to take some of life's most challenging, arduous, gut-wrenching experiences, and plop them into a mundane formula. Extraordinary Measures could have been made thirty years ago; the way it's constructed and written is no different from decades of similar films. The fact that this story found studio support as a theatrical release is all the more strange, given its subject matter, although that may be attributable to the star power of its cast.

As Crowley and Stonehill, Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford do fine. Both perform earnestly against the rather unchallenging material; I'd venture to guess that Ford rewrote most of his lines, as they stand out as having a different quality than those of the other characters. Fraser and Ford in conversation almost sound as though they are acting in two separate films. Still, both actors try hard to overcome the clichéd limitations of the material and make their characters come alive.

Interesting supporting actors such as Russell, Jared Harris, Patrick Bauchau, and Courtney B. Vance are thrown away in thankless, one-dimensional roles. The script, by Robert Nelson Jacobs, just doesn't trust in the characters enough, relying far too heavily on the circumstances of the disease-driven plot to propel the story. Director Tom Vaughn seems at a loss as to how to add anything of value to the film. It's visually static and dialogue-driven, in keeping with the conventions of the genre.

There's nothing flat-out bad about Extraordinary Measures; the worst that can be said about it is that its predictability renders it boring. The storytelling is just plain lazy, as evidenced by lines like this one (spoken by Fraser): "This isn't about a return on some investment - this is about kids!" True stories are often fumbled by filmmakers unwilling to take a leap of faith in adapting the material to film; no doubt there's a wellspring of humanity at the heart of Crowley's and Stonehill's story. But the movie doesn't work to find it, relying on a bloodless sequence of events to telegraph the significance of the two men's achievements. This otherwise interesting story is likely better covered in the nonfiction account by Geeta Anand, The Cure, upon which the film is based. 

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