Extra ordinary

Harrison Ford’s latest save-the-day turn is a blunt-edged ‘tear-jerker’ of sorts

Jan 27, 2010 at 12:00 am

Why use a paintbrush when a sledgehammer will do? Inspired by the same kind of true stories that endlessly loop on Lifetime and Hallmark TV, Extraordinary Measures is a compelling tale told in the most conventional way. You've got your kids with a rare terminal disease, your loyal and loving dad who races against the clock to find a cure and, of course, Harrison Ford as an anti-social genius scientist. Do you smell big box office? Maybe. But good drama it ain't.

Inspired by journalist Geeta Anand's The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million — And Bucked the Medical Establishment — in a Quest to Save His Children, director Tom Vaughan certainly has some meaty material to work with. And like most Hollywood movies, he fudges some of the facts and creates "composite" characters to better tell his story — all forgivable acts. What's not forgivable is turning a fascinating portrait of a man who risked everything he spent his life building to save his kids into a cliché-riddled, blunt-edged family tearjerker with cardboard characters and hamfisted direction.

John Crowley (a surprisingly pudgy Brendan Fraser) climbed up from his working-class roots to get into Harvard then ascended the corporate ladder at Bristol-Myers to become a highly successful executive. But all the drive and talent in the world couldn't trump genetics. Two of his kids — Megan and Patrick — are stricken with Pompe, a rare neuromuscular disease like muscular dystrophy that can take the life of its victims before they reach their second birthday. None have seen their ninth. Crowley's adorable kids are 6 and 8. There is no cure. With the clock ticking, John seeks out Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a curmudgeonly scientist whose work could lead to a vaccine — if he had the proper funding. So, putting his corporate skills to the test, John partners with Stonehill and struggles to build a life sciences company profitable enough to find a cure for his kids. It's an unconventional tactic to be sure, and it should've made for a uniquely intriguing film.

It isn't. Vaughan's approach is as subtle as a punch in the face. Not only is every dramatic moment telegraphed, underlined and simplified to reach the dumbest of audience members, the characters are laughably one-note. Notice how I failed to mention Aileen Crowley, the kid's mom, in my synopsis. She's played by Keri Russell but might as well be played by a chair for all the impact she has on the story. Ford's Stonehill fares only slightly better. He's crabby, arrogant and likes to blast '70s classic rock while he works. Oh, and of course he's a genius. I know Ford became too big to direct years ago (thus all the shouting), but when did he become too big for a decently written role.   

Which leaves us with Fraser's Crowley, who wrings his hands, holds back the tears and unknots his tie with solemn gravity. He should be the engine that keeps this story chugging along not passive in his determination (if that contradiction is possible). We never get to know John or how he struggles with his decisions or dilemmas. No, each obstacle here is met with a quickly executed solution. It's not that his situation isn't dramatic — after all, there are cute kids in jeopardy, how can you beat that? — it's that we don't feel the weight of his choices. He simply does what he must do to save his kids.

It'd be a lie to say that Extraordinary Measures doesn't tug at your heartstrings. It's the kind of movie that sends streaks of tears down my aunt's face. But as a tribute to the unlikely achievements of a truly extraordinary man, it's embarrassingly ordinary in its execution. 

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].