January 28, 2010


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Extraordinary Measures (PG)
Harrison Ford curmudgeons his way through Extraordinary Measures, a patience-trying Lifetime-movie-ish weepy about sick kids and their dedicated dad.

John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) is a successful pharmaceutical company executive, but his true occupation is taking care of his two fatally sick kids with his wife, Aileen (Keri Russell). Their eight-year-old daughter Megan (Meredith Droeger) and their six-year-old son Patrick (Diego Velazquez) have Pompe, a disease that dramatically weakens their muscles and enlarges their organs. The kids have a life expectancy of about nine years, and Aileen, with the help of a nurse, spends much of each day caring for them.

A better movie might have something to say about how all this is affecting their healthy oldest son, John Jr. (Sam Hall), but this is definitely not that kind of movie.

When he’s not at work making the money and earning the health care benefits that keep his children in doctors and respirators, Papa John is digging through medical journals and talking to researchers and doctors all over the country about new treatments. He keeps coming back to Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a researcher in Nebraska, and as his children’s conditions worsen, he makes an impromptu trip to find the doctor.

But Stonehill is a difficult man — all growls and bites. And John has a hard time getting him to listen. When he does, Stonehill grumbles out that he potentially has a way to prolong John’s kids’ lives but would need money for the research. Thus begins their uneasy partnership — Stonehill growling that he’s a scientist and doesn’t have to do things like explain how he will get FDA approval and John smoothing things over with investors after he’s pissed them off.

So, I wonder if this movie is the fault, in some way, of House. On that show, Greg House is a grumpy genius who pisses people off but can solve their strange illnesses. But that character — built over seasons and given backstory and problems and desires — has layers. Ford’s Stonehill is just clench-jawed and full of rage. He’s about to boil over at any moment, whether it’s because he feels he’s been betrayed by a colleague or because somebody dares to complain about his classic rock played at top volume. He’s not a difficult genius; he’s a shmuck, one who always seems about to yell “give me my BRAN MUFFIN” at the top of his lungs. (And, yes, facial expression-wise, Stonehill seems in desperate need of a bran muffin. A really big one, with a wheat germ center.)

I wonder if TV has movies thinking that they can just lean on a shorthand that isn’t theirs. Angry genius — no need to explain his personality or backstory or why anybody listens to him, the movie seems to say. Except explaining characters and motivations and turning types into people are exactly what could have kept this movie from feeling like one of those dying-kid TV movies that seemed so popular back in the 1980s. I called this a Lifetime movie but even Lifetime has moved on from sentimental mush this half-baked. C

Rated PG for thematic material, language and mild suggestive moment. Directed by Tom Vaughan and written by Robert Nelson Jacobs (from the book by Geeta Anand), Extraordinary Measures is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed in wide release by CBS films.