Harrison Ford plays a researcher into of a disease that's usually… (Merie Weismiller Wallace )
"Extraordinary Measures," starring Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford, is a desperate drama of a father racing against time to find a cure for a rare genetic disease that is killing two of his children. So you know going in that the challenge for director Tom Vaughan is how to handle the science and the sentiment -- tear-soaked terrain that has proved difficult for filmmakers over the years from "Love Story" to "Lorenzo's Oil."
Vaughan opts for restraint on both fronts, giving us a life-and-death story that feels brisk, business-like and oddly emotionless as we follow the deterioration of the kids and the difficulties of the research, as well as the business of turning a scientific theory into a life-saving, and as important, profit-generating treatment.
Speaking of profit, the film is also first off the assembly line of CBS Films, created a couple of years ago to put the network in the feature film business with an eye to modestly budgeted movies for grown-ups. If "Extraordinary Measures" is the template, a sort of uplifting drama that neither touches the heart nor tests the brain -- a film that wouldn't make the Showtime (also owned by CBS) or HBO quality cut -- then the venture is at best a work in progress.
The film was inspired by the very real struggles of the Crowley family, whose two youngest children were born with Pompe's disease (a cousin of multiple sclerosis), and "The Cure," Geeta Anand's book about their plight. It opens on Megan's (Meredith Droeger) 8th birthday as she zooms around the house in her wheelchair, breathing tube at her neck, funny and feisty despite her illness. Though the scene sets a hopeful tone the filmmakers will mostly cling to, the darker reality is never far away. We soon learn that life expectancy for a child with Pompe is 9 years.
And so the clock is ticking, with the tension in the story coming from two sides -- the advancing disease that is draining the life out of Megan and 6-year-old Patrick (Diego Velazquez) and the difficulties of getting any drug developed these days, particularly for such a rare condition. (In Pompe's case between 5,000 and 10,000 worldwide are thought to be affected.)
Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs ("Chocolat"), the film holds closely to the essence of the Crowleys' saga, which means there is a lot to cover. The filmmakers set a breakneck pace with scenes served up quicker than fast food at a drive-through -- we've barely found our footing in Nebraska, where John Crowley (Fraser) has tracked down the leading researcher of Pompe, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), when we zoom back to John's office in Portland. Then we're off to the house or the hospital or some new place that we'll forget before it even has a chance to register. Between the business emergencies and the kids' medical crises, you need a flow chart to keep up.
"Extraordinary Measures" also would have been helped by less corporate intrigue and more character. You feel it especially keenly with Ford, who does a credible job as an eccentric and ornery scientist, but there's not enough meat on the bones for him to really dig in. Meanwhile, Fraser attacks his role like a linebacker, barreling through scenes in a breathless effort to keep up.
One of the nicer turns is by Keri Russell as John's wife, Aileen, who makes you believe her brave front as she stays home and cares for the kids. And young Droeger gives Megan that old-soul optimism that you find in children who have spent too much of their life being rushed through hospital corridors.
The story is poignant and compelling, but ultimately the film doesn't have the heft it needs to fill out the big screen. If CBS Films wants to play in "The Blind Side" arena (a connection they're evoking in ads), they're going to have to step it up significantly to even get in the game.