Extraordinary Measures proceeds from one event to another, in an order that goes something like this: setback, triumph, setback, triumph, setback, triumph.
"You got a check for half a million," announces Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), "And you can call me Peggy Sue." Like much of Stonehill's dialogue in Extraordinary Measures, this line is issued as a challenge. A brilliant and solitary researcher who feels his work is underappreciated -- and underfunded -- Stonehill is predictably burdened by overwritten declarations like this, indications of his fundamental exasperation with life.
At this point in the movie, he's targeting John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a decent enough fellow who's come to inquire into the doctor's work on Pompe disease, a neuromuscular disorder that afflicts two of John's kids. John doesn’t actually have that kind of money. He's a marketing executive with an insurance policy that covers full time nurses at home, to help his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) and their unafflicted son, John (Sam Hall) with nine-year-old Megan (Meredith Droeger) and seven-year-old Patrick (Diego Velazquez). (The film is "based on true events," but takes liberties: when the real John approached the doctor, his kids were 15 months and five months old, too young for the "adorable movie kids" moments the older children afford.)
Before John arrives on Stonehill's University of Nebraska office doorstep, the movie has provided plenty of heartwarming evidence that his cause is righteous. Because Stonehill doesn’t spend much time with human beings, he's reluctant to engage John, but moved by the offer of money. After John invites him to come meet the family, Stonehill is even willing to take less money than he first demands --$91,000 raised in a couple of months by John and Aileen (their earnest phone-calls-montage takes about a minute). At the same time, John and Aileen agree to Stonehill's terms: John agrees to become Stonehill's fulltime partner/fundraiser (losing that precious insurance policy). Somehow, as things like this tend to go in the movies, the Crowleys are able to make all this work, as whatever John Jr. has to do in his new school and environs is left off screen.
Weighed down by clichés and that terrible dialogue (not to mention a tinkly-piano score that soon becomes intrusive), Extraordinary Measures proceeds from one event to another, in an order that goes something like this: setback-triumph-setback-triumph-setback-triumph. This is initiated in a crisis, when Megan nearly dies and her white-coated doctor tries to comfort the red-eyed parents by saying her death may be a "blessing," an end to her suffering. Megan's survival of this episode makes John determined not to "wait around for my children to die." As he is already well informed on current research, he decides to advocate and help fund a search for treatment, if not a cure.
The film is structured around this search, mostly in the form of Stonehill's work, obviously too abstract and boring to show up on screen, and so refashioned as repeated illustrations of his outsized "personality." He plays loud '70s rock as he works, he draws figures on a white boar, he paces and drinks beer and yells at John when the film needs a drama-boost (see the widely circulating showdown that ends in Stonehill's outburst: "I already work around the clock!").
Meanwhile, John puts together presentations (based on Stonehill's notes, i.e., "gibberish!") and also looks for money, lots of it. This comes mainly from a pharmaceutical company manned by snaky Dr. Webber (Jared Harris) and profits-minded CEO Erich Loring (Patrick Bachau). In movie-time, the transition from handshake to erected lab is mere seconds, though the film includes a couple of mini-crises to stretch out the running time: the power goes out, a credit card is rejected, a child suffers a crisis. The film does note that the research affects a broader community than the Crowleys, not only in the fundraising montages, but also in a "friendship" they develop with another family, the Temples, who also have two Pompe children. This terribly written and barely sketched relationship grants Courtney B. Vance a couple of scenes as Mr. Temple and you a chance to imagine there was another, less predictable movie to be made here.
While John spends too many scenes smoothing over clashes between Stonehill and their financers, Aileen has to remind him that his investment in the process makes him unavailable to his children -- you know, the reason for his investment (it's actually good that she does most of the crying here, as Fraser is not exactly convincing when he does). John appears repeatedly as the rational, forward-thinking partner -- in relation to both his wife (who, by the way, holds down their extremely complicated home-front) and lab-ratty Stonehill, whom he inspires to be a Better Person.