Monday, January 18, 2010

Film review: Manipulative 'Measures' comes by its emotions too easily

Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford in Extraordinary Measures.

By John Thomason

The film’s vague, punchy, two-word title suggests a middling actioner/thriller (Extreme Measures, Executive Decision, Under Suspicion) but don’t let Extraordinary Measures fool you. This is a movie for Mom, not Dad.

If you’ve seen any of the flood of TV spots for this first film from CBS’ new distribution wing, you’ll know that Extraordinary Measures is another multi-hanky, dying-kid medical drama following in the tear-stained footsteps of My Sister’s Keeper.

It’s based on Geeta Anand’s book The Cure, which tells the genuinely inspiring true story of John Crowley (played in the film by Brendan Fraser), a father who abandoned a cushy job in corporate America to team up with an eccentric researcher and develop a cure for Pompe disease, his two children's deadly form of muscular dystrophy.

A fact-checker would likely have a lengthy job with the movie version. Extraordinary Measures reduces Crowley’s life and work into a formula of bullet-pointed Hollywood clichés, beginning with his opening, frantic rush to make it to his wheelchair-bound, disease-suffering daughter Megan’s eighth birthday party (“But he promised he’d be here!”), continuing with his dramatic exit, mid-presentation, from a corporate lecture in one of those life-changing movie epiphanies, and reaching a silly dramatic low with his ostensibly suspenseful attempt to break all medical rules and steal a vial of potentially life-saving medicine.

Crowley realizes his new life’s course after a meeting with Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford, who brought the film to fruition as executive producer), a bitchy biochemist at the University of Nebraska whose enzyme research is leaps and bounds past his competition. If only he could get the funding to realize his ideas.

Enter Crowley, who launches a charity for Pompe-afflicted children, vowing to raise the necessary funds. Synergizing Crowley’s business acumen with Stonehill’s scientific expertise, this newly minted Odd Couple takes its proposals for enzyme research to top financiers, resulting in a series of gives and takes, advances and sacrifices. While Crowley is locked in fiduciary hell, his children’s conditions continue to decline, with doctors giving them a year – or less.

The plot becomes a kind of endurance test for Crowley – a series of dramatic hurdles, caused most chiefly by the stock character of Jared Harris’ callous, obstructionist bean-counter, that Crowley has to topple like so many bowling pins in his daughter’s favorite Wii game.

Directed by Tom Vaughn (What Happens in Vegas) with less ambition than a soap opera, Extraordinary Measures is an unashamedly manipulative melodrama, pushing more buttons than a kid at an Xbox tournament.

Compositionally dull and musically unadventurous, it’s such a milquetoast film that when Stonehill uses the word bullshit, it’s practically subversive.

All of that said, I will confess to laughing at a few of the more humorous one-liners and even tearing up on a few occasions at the inherently moving subject matter. The development of a Pompe cure snails along at a pace that makes congressional bill-passing look speedy, and we never forget the fact that Crowley is racing against a clock that could stop, tragically, at any time.

Fraser delivers a warm, humanistic performance (Ford is not bad, either, in a role that thankfully doesn’t require a stuntman), and Keri Russell provides affecting support as Crowley’s wife, Aileen. The movie even (minimally) addresses problems that extend beyond Crowley’s family, such as health-care costs and job safety, which ground the narrative squarely in today’s economic climate.

Vaughn’s audience-friendly film will almost certainly move you, but its telegraphed poignancy is not well-earned. It represents a Faustian pact toward commercial acceptance: subordinating brains and truth for the all-too-easy weep scene.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES. Director: Tom Vaughn; Cast: Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Meredith Droeger, Jared Harris, David Clennon; Distributor: CBS Films; Rating: PG; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

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