Alas, There is Nothing 'Extraordinary' About 'Extraordinary Measures'

Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser make a serviceable team, but Extraordinary Measures can't escape its very ordinary presentation.

Extraordinary Measures

Director: Tom Vaughan
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Studio: CBS Films and Double Feature Films
UK Release Date: 2010-06-21
US Release Date: 2010-05-18

A PG-rated drama isn’t exactly a hot commodity these days, but it certainly is a rare one. Family appropriate films (at least according to the MPAA) are usually comedies, cartoons, or have something to do with talking animals. Sometimes these three genres are even combined to form a mega family movie capable of earning half a billion bucks instead of a measly few hundred million. Why do you think Disney was so high on Bolt a few years ago? Dramas, though, are usually given a PG-13 or R rating to convey their heavy, important material. Kids don’t understand that kind of stuff, and they usually don’t want to see it.

So what do audiences make of the atypical film aimed toward families yet featuring men and women in crisis? If the reviews and box office dollars of the early 2010 film Extraordinary Measures serve any indication, not much. Raking in only $14.5 million worldwide and getting raked over the coals by critics does not add up to a successful production by studio standards. Well, they might not care as much about the quality, but we do. Unfortunately for us, though, the quality is severely hampered by the studio’s desire to make a few extra dollars.

First off, let me set free those Harrison Ford-loving parents who think they can sit back and enjoy a new version of Dr. Jones while their kids are distracted by the uplifting story. Children of any age will be bored to death by Extraordinary Measures. What little joy Ford fans can derive from seeing their childhood hero at his quirky, angry finest will not be mirrored by the text message generation or even the still curious younger set. The film, to a child, is slow, complex, and unsatisfying in its ending. Minus the complex part, these attributes will probably ring true for adults as well.

The “inspired by a true story” focuses on John Crowley (played by Brendan Fraser), a successful businessman who is consumed by his search for a cure to his children’s disease. He’s not a doctor. He’s not even in the medical field when we first meet him. Crowley spends his free time (nights, weekends, and early hours of the morning) researching Pompe disease, a neuromuscular disorder causing muscle weakness. The life expectancy for those carrying the disease is somewhere between 7 and 9 years (according to the film) and his kids are 6 and 8.

Time is running out, so Crowley makes the most educated decision available to him. No, he doesn’t get a raise and try to provide better medical care to his kids. He flies to the University of Nebraska to meet with Dr. Robert Stonehill, a quirky, supposedly brilliant doctor with a theory on how to save lives. He never pretends to know how to cure the disease, but he claims his theory can extend patients’ life expectancy dramatically.

It sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? Well, that’s where the “inspired by a true story” tag comes in to save the drama from complete corniness. In the single disc’s few, brief special features, one does give us a four-minute interview with the real John Crowley. He confirms much of what happens in the film as truth (minus one forgivably schmaltzy detail regarding the pharmaceutical company’s kindness at the film’s end). This certainly helps the hackneyed picture’s inspirational implications go down easier, but it can’t save the picture entirely. Director Tom Vaughan reigns in the enchantment of Crowley’s leap of faith by showing all of its practicalities. Every step of the way is chronicled accurately, but it doesn’t leave much time to truly admire what an amazing chance the man took when he quit his job to start a medical research facility.

Extraordinary Measures is also as clichéd as its formulaic title. Yes, it’s a true story and, yes; it’s a good one. Unfortunately, Vaughan slips one too many times into predictability. It’s not that we need to have the results shrouded in mystery. You would have to be pretty thick not to realize things might turn up sunshine and rainbows considering this factually accurate story made it to theaters. The issue resides partly in the all too familiar set-ups, arguments, and visual style. A much bigger part, though, is the cheap manner in which Vaughan tries to capture sentimentalism.

Extraordinary Measures can’t quite escape from the Hollywood-inspired manipulation of its subjects. These kids are suffering. This disease is difficult. We don’t see that part of it, though. It’s too much of a downer and far too dour a depiction for a film aimed at the family demographic to include. We see a few of the results, but mainly we see cute, handsome, or pretty actors conveying desperation, depression, or reserved optimism. Vaughan uses too many shots of his too cute child actors and sobbing, angry parents. Just when you think he’s had enough and is ready to let the story move forward with its factual aspects, he brings in more suffering families. It never reaches the point where viewers will be repeatedly reaching for the tissues (and it could have been much worse – the deleted scenes are nothing but corny scenes meant to jerk out some tears), but it does severely hinder the momentum of an ideal cinematic storyline.

Would the film have been better with a less family friendly rating attached? I think so. Obviously it would have needed an appropriate upgrade in direction and screenwriting, but who knows what Vaughan and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs could have done with less limitations. The acting talent is there (Fraser gives an uneven but effective performance in the available version), and the basic story is certainly good enough. The product we’re given here is simply a banal result of the studio system at work. Thankfully, considering the business side of things, I doubt Hollywood honchos will be trying to replicate Extraordinary Measures any time soon.

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