'Extraordinary Measures': The Least A Father Can Do

Brendan Fraser, Diego Velazquez

Heart Of The Matter: Actor Brendan Fraser (with Diego Velazquez) plays John Crowley, whose American dream shatters when his children are diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease. CBS Films hide caption

itoggle caption CBS Films

Extraordinary Measures

  • Director: Tom Vaughan
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 109 minutes

With: Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser, Kerri Russell, Meredith Droeger

There's a basic tension in the true-ish docudrama Extraordinary Measures that lifts it above the formula disease-of-the-week picture. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, a Bristol-Myers Squibb executive with a daughter and son born with the rare Pompe disease, a cousin to muscular dystrophy that fatally weakens muscles — including the biggie, the heart.

But though Crowley works for Big Pharma, there's no discussion in the movie of his particular company doing research for a cure. Pompe is an "orphan disease," which means a giant pharmaceutical and biotech entity like his employer has little financial incentive to pursue a treatment.

Instead, the distraught Crowley tracks down Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), a cranky scientist in Nebraska with big ideas but few resources. With the clock ticking on his children's lives, Crowley forms a company with Stonehill and goes in search of venture capital. He has to convince corporate bottom-liners that despite his personal stakes, he can be objective: He can coolly calculate profit margins and patient "acceptable-loss" percentages. When a bigger company buys his own and there's finally a drug to test, he learns that his dying daughter and son are too old for the first wave of trials.

The real Crowley, as portrayed in Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand's 2006 book The Cure, might even agree with Michael Moore on the doggone unfairness of it all. But he rarely questions the economic system that both makes him and his partners rich and would let his kids die.

The screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs doesn't address that dichotomy directly, either, but it hits it much harder. In fact, Jacobs and director Tom Vaughan build nearly every scene in the movie around it. Ford's character Stonehill is fictional — a composite, allegedly — and his confrontations with Crowley, whom he calls "Jersey," come down to pure science vs. the marketplace. It's a nasty moment when Crowley informs Stonehill that he's selling the company.

That scene is very Hollywood, and Extraordinary Measures comes on as a conventionally inspiring story of courage and determination. But as in the recent Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness, the filmmakers attempt to strike a balance between good old-fashioned Horatio Alger-style capitalist hustle and the primal dread of not being able to protect one's children.

Anyway, I cried. A lot. I'm a sucker for kids wasting away on ventilators. When Crowley tells his little blonde daughter, who's in the ICU with a tube in her arm, that he'll find a "special medicine" to save her, she makes him promise it will be pink. Dark pink, not light pink, which is babyish. That killed me.

And while Extraordinary Measures has a soppy piano-and-strings score, the fear under every scene gives the film an edge. Fraser doesn't suggest the drive of the real Crowley, who looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and Steve Carell, but he's such a haggard lump of vulnerability that my heart went out to him.

Harrison Ford's company bought the film rights to Anand's book, and the role of Stonehill has been made to fit his mature temperament. Which is to say he barks a lot and never cracks a smile. Something bilious in Ford seems to have taken over and worn him down to sinews and sourness. He's not especially convincing as an eccentric, obsessive scientist who blasts rock 'n' roll while scrawling equations — for one thing, he looks like he works out too much.

But he is the star who made Extraordinary Measures possible. If the film does well and Pompe disease gets more attention and funding, well — that's the showbiz side of capitalism that strives for a balance between box-office and beneficence.

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