It’s fitting that the first theatrical release from CBS Films should be one that would have been right at home on the CBS television network—twenty years ago when “disease of the week” TV-movies were commonplace. But this kiss-off, which will no doubt appear in the vast majority of the reviews for Extraordinary Measures, ignores the upside of this picture about a race for a “cure.”
For starters, Extraordinary Measures—which stars Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford—will appeal to underserved audiences. With its PG rating, Tom Vaughan’s film is a rarity in Hollywood: a movie with a mid-range budget that’s acceptable for precocious kids and doesn’t feature talking animals or 3-D CGI. The subject matter and Ford’s presence will help to draw an older audience looking for something different than the usual crop of overblown sci-fi blockbusters, teen slasher films, and unfunny romantic comedies. That said, a simply produced movie that follows a familiar outline doesn’t exactly provide a strong imperative to leave one’s couch, arguably making this mildly compelling medical drama a better candidate for Netflix queues than an evening out.
“Inspired by” the non-fiction book The Cure, by Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand, Extraordinary Measures tells the story of the Crowleys, a family reeling from the impact of Pompe disease. This form of muscular dystrophy afflicts young Megan and Patrick Crowley, causing their father John (Fraser) to switch careers. Throwing himself into the world of biotech, Crowley becomes as motivated a businessman as anyone has ever seen, because his goal is not money or fame, but rather to save lives —above all those of his own children. With fretful support from his wife Aileen (Keri Russell, reduced to bystander status), John desperately pursues any avenue showing a hint of promise for timely results in treating Pompe disease. The path leads to Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a cranky scientific researcher languishing, under-funded, at the University of Nebraska.
By making Stonehill a composite character (though largely resembling The Cure’s Dr. William Canfield), the filmmakers give themselves the freedom to sketch the true story’s complexities using cleaner narrative lines. To a point, the gambit is effective. Ford gets a bit of a change of pace in playing a smart but weary and antisocial grump whose idiosyncrasies include bass fishing, dispatching wives (“’Cause I’m so easy to get along with”), blaring classic rock in his lab, and driving a pickup truck (Ford, of course). His prickly demeanor and realism spark dramatically against Crowley’s warmth, idealism, and urgency. Um, spoiler alert, but the two men bring out the best in each other, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
Though predictable and, in the end, embarrassingly sappy, Extraordinary Measures does touch on some interesting points about the ethics of drug trials and approvals, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the challenges of doing important work that isn’t a sure thing in financial terms. And let’s be honest, some like it sappy (you know who you are).
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]