For a movie about the race to find a cure for a fatal childhood illness, there’s something oddly low-stakes about Extraordinary Measures. It’s not that director Tom Vaughan and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs disrespect the real-life story from which they are working. The film conveys the efforts of devoted father and businessman John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) and brilliant, unconventional scientist Tom Stonehill (Harrison Ford) to find a cure for Pompe disease—a rare and lethal genetic disorder—before the disease kills more children (including two of Crowley’s) in restrained, unassuming scenes of familial heartache, professional struggle, and sober determination. But if the film manages to rein in the schmaltzier aspects of its disease-of-the-week plot, it shies away from messier and more affecting emotions as well. Whenever a glimmer of genuine tragedy or knotty complexity begins to peek through its tasteful surface, the film quickly averts our eyes, lest a story about dying kids and their anxious parents becomes too, you know, intense.
I’m not advocating for the sort of rank emotional exploitation that so often attaches itself to stories of suffering children—misery porn cloaked in the tattered shroud of “empathy.” Even when one considers the mainstream audience that Vaughan is targeting, though, is it so much to ask that a film like this allow us glimpses of pain and anger and frayed hope in a manner that is poetic, visceral, or unvarnished? It’s hard not to be mildly moved watching Crowley’s children, particularly spunky eight-year-old Megan (Meredith Droeger), grow weak and exhausted as their Pompe further develops, but even these scenes feel rote and conservative. And while the humor liberally sprinkled throughout Jacobs’s script is theoretically welcome, moments of would-be spontaneity seem less like organic reactions than calculated tonal change-ups. Extraordinary Measures is certainly not the first film to suffer from this strain of emotional timidity, but such shortcomings aren’t really excusable simply because they are widely shared.
Extraordinary Measures feels liveliest when considering what happens when scientific research collides with the individual egos and desires of those producing it. A rock n’ roll-blasting workaholic, Stonehill has made significant breakthroughs in understanding how to treat Pompe. Lacking the funding to push his research forward, Crowley and his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) raise enough money to start a shoestring biotech company to produce his treatment. The pugnacious Stonehill, however, soon finds himself chafing against the doubts and restrictions placed on him by the venture capitalists that help finance the company and, later, the executives at the larger drug manufacturer that absorb it. Crowley accuses Stonehill of letting his arrogance derail their project, but he too feels pulled between professional and personal obligations when it appears that his own children may not benefit from the treatments he has helped to fund. When Crowley gets dressed down by a fellow biotech businessman (Jared Harris) for bending protocol to help his children receive the medication, it presents an intriguing moment of ethical ambivalence, albeit one solved with dispiriting swiftness. (I’m convinced that certain filmmakers believe that providing a viewer with emotional ambiguity is akin to dunking their head underwater: more than a couple of minutes, and our eyes will start to bug out.)
Still, Stonehill and Crowley’s debates give off the periodic spark, thanks mostly to Ford’s pleasingly gruff performance. While Fraser’s moist-eyed crusader routine quickly proves tiresome, Ford never bothers to make Stonehill all that sympathetic, and his growling and glowering helps counterbalance the film’s occasional lurches into cornball territory. He can’t cure what ails Extraordinary Measures, but his get-off-my-lawn crabbiness gives some welcome jolts to the otherwise anesthetized proceedings.