January 26, 2010

There's nothing Extraordinary about saccharine optimism

A humanizing drama that draws attention to the inadequacies of pharmaceutical companies and a little-known, tragic disease besetting children, Extraordinary Measures walks a very fine line between deft drama and soapbox-y, Lifetime movie-of-the-week melodrama. Every scene of the film featuring a sick, wheelchair-bound child, a crying or desperate parent, or an apologetic doctor is poised to slip into Angela Lansbury-hosted infomercial hell, pleading “Help me” eyes and all. The film wavers on this line like a gymnast on a balance beam, going through the motions cleanly in the early stages, but often swinging its arms to catch itself when things get difficult, and then eventually falling off the edge. It’s an achievement that Extraordinary Measures does not completely choke on its own sentiment.

As CBS Films’ first venture into features, Extraordinary Measures is a Harrison Ford-produced vehicle (though he took second billing) that feels very much like a CBS product “made for TV.” The film stars Brendan Fraser as real-life father and pharmaceutical executive John Crowley, whose two young children suffer from a debilitating disorder called Pompe disease. The disorder makes them incapable of metabolizing sugar and typically results in death before the age of nine. Heartbreaking stuff. And the film wastes no time trying to break your heart and prey upon your compassion.

We quickly get to around-the-clock nurses, $40,000-per-month medical bills, birthdays that bring fear rather than joy, and the intense stress of parents Fraser and Keri Russell as they watch their children deteriorate before their eyes. The film paces itself well and intriguingly explores the complex process of creating a therapeutic drug, made available through Crowley’s heroic efforts. Crowley essentially left his job in order to raise venture capital and find a therapy for his children, and the film explores the mounting tension between how much time the children have left to live and the experimental drug's potential failure.

Ford, who helped develop the project from its inception as executive producer, also sought a role from the film, and thus Dr. Robert Stonehill emerged. A composite character molded from various academic researchers Ford met, Stonehill is a cranky, twice-married and twice-divorced genetics researcher now married to his work. Preferring to listen to deafeningly loud music, including John Denver’s “The Weight,” Stonehill’s tantrums and aversion to authority play like a childish and generic idea of an eccentric genius. Ford’s character is a distracting cliché that feels noticeably fashioned and inserted for conflict, rather than for a natural advancing of the story. Formulaic role notwithstanding, his delivery of the line “I can’t cure your kids…but I think I can save their lives” packs such weight that it is justification enough for his presence in the film. Those are the kind of words that any parent in such a hopeless situation as Crowley would seize upon. Ford’s character, though conspicuously fabricated, is the motivation that jumpstarts the plot.

The film doesn’t attempt to downplay the misfortune of the disease, and relies heavily on the sympathy card. Crowley’s daughter Megan (Meredith Droeger) is the poster girl for winning sympathy. She’s on a ventilator and bound to her wheelchair, but she loves life and everything it has to offer her. But what does it have to offer her? This is not to say that she should give up, but it is simply bewildering how the film chooses to present her as a perpetually happy and smiling child with so much boundless optimism in spite of her incredibly dire situation. The film’s glass is half full, its grass is greener on the other side, and there’s always sunshine instead of rain. What makes this film’s hopefulness so fake, despite a colossally happy ending that can be reduced to a disingenuous sugar high, is the joylessness in knowing other families are not so lucky, are not so financially fortunate, and do not cope with the disease with the glossy survivalist attitude seen here. The film is a neatly packaged public service announcement that shies away from its subject matter just enough so as to not get its hands too dirty.