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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford can't find a cure for a hackneyed plot.
They've generally been banished to the Lifetime and Hallmark channels now, but when I was growing up, the major networks used to run what were called (with some derision) "disease of the week movies." The films were always the same, with somebody contracting some rare disease, then rather easily finding a cure for it two hours later. Extraordinary Measures is exactly like one of those disease of the week movies, except that it is playing on large theater screens across the country. Like its televised counterparts, the film is without complexity or nuance. It does more than just try to jerk tears; it practically reaches up into your eye sockets and yanks the tears from them.

Based on a true story (although fudged substantially to fit a traditional Hollywood feel-good formula), Extraordinary Measures stars Brendan Fraser as John Crowley, a successful corporate type who lives with wife Aileen (Keri Russell) and their three children. Two of those kids suffer from a rare malady known as Pompe Disease. Life expectancy for those with the disease is less than ten years; the Crowley kids are 6 and 8. After their daughter has a near-death experience, John decides it's time to get serious about finding a cure. He's long been trying to contact Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), a university biochemist in Nebraska who has devised some cutting edge theories of treating the illness. Stonehill has been blowing him off, so John physically shows up at the lab to insist that the doctor help.

It proves to be a marriage of convenience. John promises to use his business acumen to properly fund Stonehill's research and turn it into something more than just an academic theory. They start a foundation, establish their own biochem lab, sell it to a major drug manufacturer, and ultimately discover that bringing a drug to market requires more political maneuvering than they ever imagined. It doesn't help that Stonehill is eccentric and temperamental, prone to pissing off the very people/businesses who are in the best position to help make the treatment a reality.

That's a big problem with Extraordinary Measures. Although John Crowley and his family are real people, Dr. Robert Stonehill is not. He's an amalgam of several doctors Crowley worked with. I don't have a problem with the movie giving Stonehill a difficult personality, except for the fact that it consumes too much of the story. When the lives of children are at stake, it's easy to become frustrated with how much time the movie gives to the character's lack of social skills. Seeing other scientists getting angry that Stonehill blasts classic rock music while working is not as dramatic or interesting as seeing the race to find a cure for Pompe. I guess Harrison Ford saw this as a meaty role, but there's not much he does with it. At the end of Air Force One, Ford famously uttered the line, "Get off my plane!" In this picture, he delivers 3/4 of his dialogue in that voice.

Like those old disease of the week movies, this one generally seems to cut out everything that's interesting. Consider a moment early on. John and Aileen have decided to start a foundation. They need to raise a lot of money in a month’s time - half a million, to be exact. We get a 60-second montage of them holding fundraisers and collecting checks from church groups. In the next scene, they suddenly have a big chunk of cash. Now, I know (and so do you) that raising money for a brand-new cause is difficult at best. Wouldn't it be interesting to see the struggles the Crowleys had to face to convince people that they were legit? Extraordinary Measures skips over some of the most potentially dramatic stuff, in the process making it seem like the their efforts to create this drug were simple. The movie undermines its own drama.

That sort of thing happens time and time again throughout the movie. Crowley tells Stonehill that they need to sell their company to a major pharmaceutical company in order to survive. By the next scene, they've done it. A conflict of interest arises in the drug testing process. A minute later, it's solved. This is material that deserves a far more complex depiction than it gets. Then again, Extraordinary Measures isn't interested in showing the miraculous quality of what John Crowley accomplished; it's only concerned with squeezing the science into a heartwarming, easy-to-digest template that leads to an emotional ending. For me, the feel-good part of this story has two factors: the Crowley's children are alive today, and a treatment for Pompe was discovered because people worked against all odds to make it happen. The movie really only cares about the first part.

Interestingly, all the advertising for Extraordinary Measures features a quote (doubtless from a blurbster who was paid handsomely to make a PR-ready comparison) equating the film to The Blind Side. There's a kind of desperation to it, as though the studio is saying, "That movie you all love? Yeah, we're just like it!" I'm not the biggest fan of Blind Side, but it is doubtlessly more successful than this one.

For all its attempts to wring emotion, I walked out feeling very little. There are a few nice individual moments, a few scenes of humor, and a general amiability to the picture. But those things never gel into something more powerful. Director Tom Vaughan (What Happens in Vegas) and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs only go skin deep with a story that is more fascinating the deeper you go. They've shot themselves in the foot. There was a 1992 movie called Lorenzo's Oil, also based on a true story about a parent frantically trying to discover a cure for a child's illness. That film went very in-depth, making us care about the journey so that when we arrived at the destination, it meant something. Extraordinary Measures just cares about the destination, and the journey merely gets lip service.

( out of four)

Extraordinary Measures is rated PG for thematic material, language and a mild suggestive moment. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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