Most of the time Big Pharma appears in cinema as not only a malevolent force but a nearly satanic one. From The Constant Gardener and Resident Evil to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 28 Weeks Later, this is an industry that ravages cinematic worlds with a hateful, sociopathic frenzy.
That is why the 2010 film Extraordinary Measures is so intriguing, at least in parts. Telling the good-natured albeit syrupy tale of one man’s quest to develop a novel medication to save his children from Pompe’s disease, Extraordinary Measures tackles concepts related to Big Pharma in a far more nuanced way. Without a doubt it lets the industry off somewhat easy, but it’s refreshing to see pharma executives colored in shades of grey rather than pitch black or chalk-white.
Despite the laudable nature of this more multifaceted approach, Extraordinary Measures is by no means a knock out film. While competently made and featuring a strong, late-period Ford performance, in many ways it’s bland and simplistic, the cinematic equivalent of a baked potato with a side of baked potato.
In Extraordinary Measures Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, a Portland-area advertising executive who lives with his wife Aileen (Keri Russel) and three children. Two out of the three Crowley children are afflicted with Pompe’s disease, an inherited disorder that causes complex sugars to buildup in the body’s cellular structure and impair its muscles from functioning normally.
The film opens with the eighth birthday of Crowley’s Pompe-afflicted daughter, Megan, a milestone that throws him into a tailspin due to the average life expectancy of Pompe disease being nine years of age. Becoming increasingly desperate, Crowley absconds from Portland to the University of Nebraska to seek out the assistance of Harrison Ford’s Dr. Robert Stonehill, an innovative researcher who has developed a theoretical enzyme capable of treating Pompe.
Stonehill proves to be a cantankerous old fucker sorely lacking in interpersonal skills, only agreeing to help Crowley out of the need to satiate his own ego, claiming to be tired of giving his employer patents to his work. The two men then go into business together, launching a biotechnology research company designed to turn Stonehill’s theory into reality and save the lives of Crowley’s children.
Written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (2000’s Chocolat), Extraordinary Measures strangely has many problems with its script, one of them being the way it treats its characters. For instance, while Jacobs does build a compelling, surface-level sketch of Ford’s researcher, his script doesn’t examine what the character wants to change about himself or his circumstances. If anything, the film creates interesting decision moments for Stonehill, subtle character shifts that Ford is able to sell. But these don’t compensate for the fact that his character doesn’t seem to be fighting for anything aside from his own ego, a fact that doesn’t really change throughout the movie’s duration.
With such structural deficiencies plaguing the screenplay, it’s a testament to Ford’s skill that Stonehill registers as strongly as he does. Although at times the veteran actor seems to be flying on autopilot (something Ford himself might want to consider after several absurd plane crashes), Ford injects Stonehill with enough of his crusty world-weariness to still hold the screen. There are select scenes where he relies a bit too heavily on his now iconic “Old Man Ford” persona that he has been curating in interviews and public appearances over the last decade. Yet he still offers enough variation in his characterization of Stonehill to ever become truly tedious.
Yet his on-screen presence is perhaps so powerful because his co-star’s is virtually non-existent. Now, I’m no Fraser hater, but his work in Extraordinary Measures is truly grating, oscillating between creepy, paternal enthusiasm and some sort of chastised school boy routine. The later part of his performance is the more noticeably odd, full of bizzaro verbal quirks like an elongated and monotone cadence. This is apparent even in the trailer line where he agonizingly says “five hundred … thousand … dollars.”
Still, at least Fraser has a part to play. Poor Keri Russel is firmly stuck in a throwaway supportive wife role, the type of thankless part you’ve seen in countless films. This relegation feels particularly jarring considering Russel’s ferocious work in the ongoing FX drama The Americans, a series that showcases just how good she can be when given adequate material.
Performance and scripting issues aside, the whole approach to the Crowley family’s plight is one of Extraordinary Measures’ worst failings. It is so saccharine it would probably be laughed out of the Hallmark Channel’s studio. Basically, the film power-washes the story of any unsavory facets, eliminating the grit that one would imagine is synonymous with having two small children suffering from a debilitating disease. Aside from being confined to a wheelchair and a scene or two where they experience muscular weakness, the Crowley children seem perfectly contented, literally zooming around with massive grins on their faces followed by a bevy of adoring friends.
The film clearly intends for you to root for this family, to be firmly in their camp. Therefore, it also omits any whiff of unsavory emotions on the part of the parents played by Fraser and Russel. This is a superhero pair, tirelessly devoted to their children’s health and happiness, always having the strength for another Eskimo kiss, showing up for kiddie birthday after kiddie birthday looking like they are in the throes of the most intense ecstasy ever experienced. This is nice but ultimately fake and facile, a portrait of humanity that only exists on the silver screen. And Director Tom Vaughan? He does nothing to elevate the material. Every camera movement and musical cue feels conventional and workmanlike.
Thus, I return to the points I raised in my opening paragraphs. One of the most unique parts of Extraordinary Measures is its treatment of the biotechnology industry, particularly the complex mindsets of the suits that work there. One such figure is Dr. Kent Webber, played by the venerable Jared Harris. Harris initially comes off as a total eel, a slithery archetype of corporate indifference that so often populates stories that come out of liberal Hollywood. Yet amazingly Extraordinary Measures does not seek to totally demonize this industry or the people who work in it. The film shows these people to be working in an industry that requires them to balance their humanity with more unsavory concepts such as “profit motivation” and “acceptable losses.”
Not to say that the film’s rather light-handed treatment of the pharma industry didn’t slightly turn my stomach; it definitely did. This is an industry that always seems to be associated with a great deal of pain and suffering in the world, and one that probably deserves a good skewering onscreen since our elected officials are so reticent to do so. That said, few things are more tedious than when the complex, contradictory nature of human beings is stuffed into the confines of stock characters and archetypes. This particular film does the opposite of that with its treatment of pharma. And while that doesn’t make it extraordinary, it does make it unworthy of total derision.