Extraordinary Measures is the first release from the newly formed CBS Films, where the company credo seems to be "Let's trick people into paying to see movies at the theater they wouldn't watch for free at home!"
Everything about this excruciatingly dull, talky film screams made-for-network-TV: The I'm-only-here-for-a-paycheck performances by famous actors; the Crate and Barrel catalog mise-en-scene; the syrupy score that lays the pathos on so thickly you gag on it.
And there is no shortage of pathos in a movie that constantly cuts away to shots of smiling, terminally ill kids in wheelchairs. Extraordinary Measures is based on Geeta Anand's nonfiction book The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million - and Bucked the Medical Establishment - in a Quest to Save His Children. There, I've just saved you two hours you would have never gotten back.
Even if this feeble film weren't based on a book with a gigantic plot-spoiler title, it would still feel like something you endure more than watch. Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell star as John and Aileen Crowley, a couple with two children (Meredith Droeger and Diego Velazquez) afflicted by the rare genetic disorder Pompe disease. The life expectancy of such children is nine years, and the Crowleys' daughter has just turned 8.
Thanks to helpful, fifth-grade-level dialogue by screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, we learn that conventional medicine has no more resources to offer. ("Now I wish we had a drug to treat Pompe," a doctor tells the couple, speaking slowly and clearly, as if they were mentally challenged. "But we simply don't. I'm sorry.") After the desperate John learns about Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), a researcher at the University of Nebraska working on an enzyme that could help treat the disease, he quits his job, convinces the cranky professor to become his business partner and plunges into the cut-throat biotech industry to find investors to fund Stonehill's research.
Their partnership leads to lots of unbelievably boring scenes in which the pair uses scientific jargon to pitch medical companies: Not even Scorsese could do much with such aggressively uncinematic material. The rest of Extraordinary Measures alternates between scenes of people arguing (there are a lot of arguments in this movie) and scenes conveying the children's deteriorating condition. The movie's producers include the esteemed Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, who made Erin Brockovich and World Trade Center. But their knack for investing fact-based stories with dramatic energy completely abandons them this time, and director Tom Vaughan displays the same inability to pace a movie he showed in What Happens in Vegas.
Ford always takes top billing in his movies (he even took top billing in Working Girl), but his name appears second in the credits of Extraordinary Measures. Frasier is first-billed and gets the most screen time as the distraught dad, but the actor is badly miscast. Often, Fraser's facial expressions of despair recall his work as an unearthed caveman in Encino Man.
There is some fun to be had in watching Ford as a crabby professor - what Indiana Jones might have become if he had hung up his whip at 60. But Dr. Stonehill, like everyone else in Extraordinary Measures, is a superficial sketch - a compendium of likes (fishing, classic rock) and dislikes (people, his ex-wife's cats) that never really digs into the intriguing man's life.
Having Ford in the cast drew strong actors to throwaway roles (Dee Wallace, aka E.T.'s mom, shows up for 30 seconds as a waitress). But the filmmakers might as well have gone with cheaper unknowns, because Extraordinary Measures never aims for anything beyond disease-of-the-week clichés. CBS would have fared better keeping this one on the tube, where Ford's name would have drawn big ratings, and the film's utter conventionality would have felt comforting instead of taxing.
The network could have even used the telecast to help raise funds to fight Pompe disease by asking viewers to donate. Forcing you to buy a ticket to see Extraordinary Measures feels like robbery.