Truth is often more compelling than fiction, and filmgoers love a heartfelt human interest story, but true stories don't automatically make great movies. Amelia Earhart is a fascinating historical figure, but it didn't show in her recent biopic. Conversely, the story of the Tuohy family's adoption of budding football star Michael Oher doesn't seem very flashy, but The Blind Side deeply resonated with audiences.
So it doesn't matter whether the subject is interesting or not: Dramatized human interest stories still need to connect through strong writing and acting.
Extraordinary Measures would seem to have everything going for it: A touching story (based on the best-selling book The Cure) inspired by true events about a father's great lengths to save his kids' lives. A timely subject with health care on the minds of millions. Two high-profile actors in Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford. Sadly, it all adds up to an extraordinary bore.
Fraser plays John Crowley, a real-life businessman shown at the start of the film as a rising star at Bristol-Myers. The opening credits teeter on cliché, showing Crowley as a father seemingly too busy at work to make his daughter's birthday party. He arrives in the nick of time, revealing the harried family—with John's wife Aileen (Keri Russell) and their three children John Jr., Megan, and Patrick—as the picture of love and happiness.
But all is not well. Time is running out for 8-year-old Megan and 6-year-old Patrick, both confined to wheelchairs. They have Pompe disease, a rare genetic disorder caused by an enzyme deficiency that leads to muscle weakness and typically death by 9 years of age. The family seems to be out of options, but a near-death experience for Megan at the hospital prompts John to reach out to Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a scientist at the University of Nebraska whose experimental research may hold a cure for Pompe children.
If only it were that simple. As anyone with an understanding of "orphan drugs" and the pharmaceutical industry knows, miracle cures don't simply develop overnight. There needs to be financial backing, exhaustive scientific studies, industrial support, and FDA approval. And as cold as it sounds, pharmaceutical companies know it isn't profitable to develop a drug benefitting only a small percentage of the population. Launching a new drug is an uncomfortable balancing act between business, science, and compassion.
Nevertheless, Crowley gives it his all: "I can't just sit there while my kids are dying." He quits his successful job and moves his family to go into business with Stonehill, building a chance for a cure. Stonehill has the scientific breakthrough, Crowley has the business smarts to market it, but it's still a question of whether they can have a cure ready in time to save the Crowley children.
Details have been dramatized for Extraordinary Measures. The events have been condensed from a five-year span into a single year, simplifying the timeline (measured by Megan's impending 9th birthday) while attempting to infuse the story with suspense. Additionally, there is no Dr. Stonehill; the character is a composite of the scientists that Crowley worked with at a biotech start-up company. The purpose was to simplify things while adding suspense, having Crowley butt heads against one scientist instead of several, but it seems disingenuous in the postscript of the film to assert that "Stonehill's" research continues.
Sadly, the Stonehill concoction backfires and derails much of the movie. Depicted as an eccentric loner, Stonehill's eccentricities are limited to working late, not answering the phone, and playing loud rock music while working. Ford is reduced to a gruff one-dimensional caricature, backsliding further as an actor by portraying a grouchy old man who quickly loses his temper whenever he doesn't get his way. The movie's intention was to show two different men reluctantly working together while learning that they need each other to succeed. Instead, it's a lot of generic scenes that confuse yelling with drama.
The movie also fails to effectively tug on our heartstrings. Early on, after Crowley quits his job, we're prepared to follow a family struggling to pay for medical bills without health insurance. But before you know it, Crowley finds corporate sponsorship for Stonehill's drug and the family is living in a picturesque mansion. Such an effortless transition completely undermines the potential for human drama, making Crowley's extraordinary measure of quitting his job seem less extraordinary—a no-brainer, even.
Or take Courtney B. Vance, completely wasted as another father with Pompe children; he literally has three scenes with dialogue amounting to "Here's a check … I have two kids with Pompe … Thanks for everything you're doing." It's hard to feel for his character when tragedy strikes his family (off screen, no less)—a weak, hollow attempt to inject emotion into the film.
It's also a movie that relies heavily on business and science jargon without delving deeply to make the dialogue interesting or informative. Stonehill generally explains the basics of Pompe disease and his experimental cure, but the viewer is always kept at a distance from the drama of the research itself. How about some visual cues to better understand the process—a chalkboard drawing, a metaphor, or some form of computer animation to educate the viewer? Anything to show instead of tell would have helped.
Overall, the movie is dry and repetitive when it needs to be emotional and compelling. Blame the limp script—it's all heated arguments, usually involving Crowley and Stonehill, alternating with cute family scenes (the Crowleys at the bowling alley, the amusement park, the duck pond, etc.) to remind us of the stakes.
As the first feature from the newly formed CBS Films, Extraordinary Measures feels like a TV movie that happens to star Fraser and Ford—neither actor distinguishes himself here. Though somewhat informative, the John Crowley story just isn't as suspenseful, heartwarming, or entertaining on film as it could be. It's not awful or unwatchable; just perfectly ordinary.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Early on, a doctor tells Crowley that the imminent death of his daughter could be seen as a blessing—an end to her suffering. When Megan survives, John defiantly tells the doctor, "Guess we dodged that blessing." What does he mean? What does it tell you about John's outlook about his kids' illness?
- With the prognosis looking bad for the Crowley kids, Dr. Stonehill tells John to enjoy them while he still can. At what point does hope run out? What sustains it for people like the Crowleys?
- The movie's tagline reads, "Don't hope for a miracle. Make one." Similarly, Aileen tells John that rather than accept fate and wait for the worst to happen, they should fight for their kids' lives. Is there a scenario where it's better for the kids to "accept fate"? Is it "more Christian" to be active rather than passive when facing trials and tribulation? How do we discern God's will in the matter?
- How much do Crowley and his wife give up for the well-being of their children? What would you risk for the lives of your children or loved ones? How are acts like the Crowleys' an example of faith?
- Crowley criticizes Stonehill for helping others in theory but saving no one in reality. Is there a spiritual parallel to sharing faith? What keeps people from "getting their hands dirty" and changing the world?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Extraordinary Measures is rated PG for thematic material, language, and a mild suggestive moment. Younger kids may be frightened by the prospect of a disease that kills young children. Though children are shown in peril at the hospital, there's nothing particularly graphic, and it might be a good launch point for discussing life-threatening disease with younger viewers. There's an inordinate amount of profanity (including misuse of Christ's name) for a movie that might otherwise have been deemed family-friendly or appropriate for an elementary classroom. The "suggestive moment" involves a very brief scene when the Crowleys' personal nurse interrupts them during a moment of intimacy; though nothing is shown and it's intended for laughs, it's completely extraneous.
Photos © CBS Pictures
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