Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: "Extraordinary Measures"

Yes, "Extraordinary Measures" is exactly what first appearances suggest: A tearjerker about a heroic father who will stop at nothing to find a cure for the cruel, rare disease afflicting his children. He enlists the aid of a brilliant but crotchety scientist, and together they take on the pharmaceutical establishment.

And yes, this is absolutely TV Movie-of-the-Week material. The fact that it's produced by the movie arm of CBS does little to allay that perception.

And that awful title -- so bland, so interchangeable. It could easily swap places with "Edge of Darkness," the Mel Gibson revenge movie coming out next week, and no one would notice.

But you know what? This movie doesn't have a cynical bone in its body. It sheds genuine light on the twisted labyrinth through which new drug therapies must travel, and does so in a way that's undeniably melodramatic but also engaging.

And heck, "Lorenzo's Oil" tackled pretty much the same subject matter, and people hated it so much it was nominated for two Oscars. "Extraordinary Measures" isn't in that same league, but it's a commendable effort.

Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, a real guy who was a rising star at a big pharmaceutical company when he pitched it all to come up with a treatment for Pompe Disease, a degenerative muscle condition that claims most victims before they can measure their age in double digits.

Two of Crowley's three children -- Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Valezquez) -- were born with Pompe and are confined to wheelchairs. It's Megan's near-death from respiratory distress shortly after her eight birthday that convinces him to act boldly.

Keri Russell plays Crowley's wife Aileen, who does the best she can with the unrewarding role of the housewife who only appears from time to time to air complaints.

Harrison Ford, in an uncharacteristically stern role, plays Dr. Robert Stonehill, a researcher at the University of Nebraska whose theories on an enzyme treatment for Pompe are light-years ahead of the competition. On a whim, Crowley flies to Lincoln, corners the grumpy Stonehill in a bar and convinces him to go into business together.

What I liked most about the way director Tom Vaughan and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on the book by Geeta Anand) approached this story was to focus so much on the unsexy and often heartless process by which new medical breakthroughs are achieved.

People may not like it, but the truth is that few entities are willing to spend the gobs of money necessary to develop a new drug or treatment, and those that are want to profit from the research. Vaughan and Jacobs are careful to depict this frankly but without being too judgmental.

Jared Harris has a nice role as a bean-counter who butts heads with Crowley, but balances a sense of perspective with the dollars.

I'm guessing a lot of people will take a look at ads for "Extraordinary Measures" -- ugh, that title doesn't get any better with repetition -- and dismiss it as maudlin claptrap. But as feel-good cinematic medicine goes, this one goes down pretty smooth.

3 stars

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