Here’s the most extraordinary thing about Extraordinary Measures (CBS Films): I sort of liked it. Yes, the movie about Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser working together around the clock to discover a cure for Fraser’s children’s rare genetic disease. The movie with this poster. And this tag line: “Don’t hope for a miracle. Make one.” Though the believe-in-your-dreams story line comes straight from the Lifetime Channel stockpile, it gains emotional resonance from the fact that (in slightly less dramatic form) it really happened—the movie is based on a nonfiction book by Geeta Anand—and from the believably prickly relationship between the two charismatic leads. Fraser and Ford are both actors of limited range who can be extremely appealing in the right role, and here, they’re both ideally cast: Fraser as the naive, doting, boundlessly optimistic suburban dad and Ford as the snarling, misanthropic, classic-rock-blasting scientist. Even given the foregone conclusion, can you honestly say you don’t want to see these guys found a biotech startup together and save the sick kids against all odds?
OK, maybe you can. But it’s a little harder to resist the pulpy pull of this kind of movie once one has a kid of one’s own. Extraordinary Measures works, if it works at all, as a parental wish-fulfillment fantasy: It allows the viewer to imagine his or her own child placed in extreme peril, thereby translating the everyday exertions of parenting into a swashbuckling escapade. Last year’s Taken, in which Liam Neeson played a retired CIA super-spy forced back into action when his daughter was kidnapped by sex traders, was an example of parental wish-fulfillment in the action-adventure genre. But Taken was an acceptable popcorn pleasure—and generally well-received by critics—because it was a macho action-adventure story.
As John Crowley, the corporate employee turned pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Brendan Fraser doesn’t have to rely on his black-ops training or pull any karate moves. He just has to write a bunch of really kick-ass business plans. Given that most of us lead lives that depend far more on impressing people in meetings than on the ability to throat-punch Serbian thugs, the scenes in which Crowley wows roomfuls of venture capitalists with his binder full of graphs are not without their low-key satisfactions.
Crowley, a successful Portland businessman as the movie begins, has two children in the advanced stages of Pompe disease, a rare genetic disorder that causes irreversible muscle degeneration and kills most victims by the age of 9. As the movie begins, his oldest, Megan (Meredith Droeger), has just turned 8, and John and his wife, Aileen (Keri Russell), know her days are numbered. After a medical crisis in which the Crowleys nearly lose their daughter, John seeks out Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), an academic research scientist known for his groundbreaking, but untested, ideas for a Pompe cure. Stonehill is unforthcoming to the point of surliness, but when Crowley proposes to raise $500,000 to help him develop a drug for field trials, he starts listening.
This middle section of the movie goes to some unexpected places, as Crowley, Stonehill, and their corporate investors butt heads over how best to fundraise, finance, and market their prospective miracle drug. It would have been easy to make this a David-vs.-Goliath drama about the scrappy startup standing up to the faceless corporate giant. Instead, the movie shows the process of bringing a new drug to market as a succession of hard-fought, often troubling compromises between the aspirations of science and the realities of a market economy. In one meeting, Crowley is asked to estimate what rate of “acceptable loss”—i.e., mortality—would make his drug financially viable to develop. The father of two dying children winces for a moment, then goes ahead and estimates a figure. In a lesser movie, he’d have thrown down his binder and stormed out of the meeting, protesting that no loss was acceptable—then gotten the investment anyway. Though this movie never directly addresses the debate about health care reform, it clearly sends the message that capitalism and medicine make uncomfortable bedfellows.
The scenes involving political infighting in the biotech sector are more successful than the domestic ones, though the screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs largely steers clear of bathos in its portrayal of the sick children. As a little girl wary of being condescended to by grown-ups, Meredith Droeger is dryly funny, and even Keri Russell, in a standard-issue supportive wife role, has her moments. (I liked it when, assured by her husband that he would do whatever was necessary to keep their health insurance, she muttered, “No shit.”)
The book I’m currently reading, Carl Wilson’s remarkable Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, makes the case that “middlebrow is the new lowbrow,” that the most socially stigmatizing taste to admit to is no longer the appreciation of pulp but the enjoyment of pablum. The example Wilson’s book is structured around is the music of Celine Dion, but a movie like Extraordinary Measures fits the bill just as well. To admit you like Extraordinary Measures is to admit you’re ordinary: susceptible to happy endings, moved by the notion of saving sick children, amused by Harrison Ford in his late-period “Get off my lawn” mode. I plead guilty—but I feel no guilt at all.
Slate V: The critics on Extraordinary Measures and other new releases