Whenever you have a movie that's based on a true story and is about the brave battle against some horrible disease, a large portion of the audience will be inspired and moved, no matter how brutally awful the movie is. And stepping up to critique the art of a bad movie inevitably sounds a little like critiquing the real-life heroes. This is never the case. I wouldn't take back the deeds of the real-life John Crowley for anything. But I imagine that his real-life battles amounted to not much more than a series of phone calls, meetings and conversations, none of which make for a very interesting movie. So for the new Extraordinary Measures, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs and director Tom Vaughan (What Happens in Vegas) throw in a whole bunch of fictionalized arguments, chases and grand gestures to make it play more like a movie.
The problem with these additions is not that they're there; every "based on a true story" movie uses them. The problem is that they feel false and staged. Nothing here feels as if it might actually have happened. It's all too metered and inevitable. But even as the movie abandons truth, it still can't quite embrace drama. Extraordinary Measures brings up several sub-themes, but never decides on any of them. The main drive is the fight to save the lives of two siblings, eight year-old Megan (Meredith Droeger) and six year-old Patrick Crowley (Diego Velazquez), who have Pompe disease. The movie provides a layman's description of the disease: basically the children are born without a certain enzyme that breaks down sugar. Over time, the sugar builds up and they begin to lose muscle function. Life expectancy is about 9 years.
Father John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) works in a corporate job whose health care pays for the treatment of his kids. Mom Aileen (Keri Russell) appears upbeat most of the time, and in fact, doesn't seem much like a mom at all (she's too thin and perky). Megan and Patrick also have one healthy brother, John Jr. (Sam Hill), who also appears to get along just fine with his siblings. (Wouldn't there be a little resentment over the "attention" factor?) When Megan has a close call in the hospital, worried Crowley contacts Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), who is a fictionalized version of Dr. William Canfield, possibly merged with other real-life scientists.
Stonehill has been doing groundbreaking research on a replacement enzyme that will fight the disease, but he's not exactly a "people person" and can never raise the money he needs. That's where Ford comes in; he plays the doctor like an old school curmudgeon, listening to AOR rock at work, driving a rattletrap pickup truck, taking off for fishing trips and calling "bullshit" in a meeting with investors. The movie tries to play Stonehill's old school against Crowley's "new school" (Stonehill calls him "Jersey") but the two men never seem to care enough for one another to truly clash. (Maybe Ford was pissed off at Fraser for ripping off Indiana Jones in the Mummy movies.)
Another of the movie's attempted themes is depicting the heartless business end (and/or corruption) of the United States drug industry. Everything needs to be FDA-approved, and personal wants and needs are kept out of the mix. One of the movie's biggest turns comes when Crowley learns that the first testing of the new drug will not be on his own children, but on infants. It makes more sense that way, the movie's corporate bad guys assure him, and whether or not they're right, they don't have a fighting chance since the movie paints them as moustache-twisting, amoral scoundrels. After all, you have to have someone who doesn't want Crowley's kids to survive in order to have some drama. But, of course, when it comes for Crowley to play along with (and suck up to) the corporate suits to get what he wants, the movie forgives him. And the movie forgives everyone when they all reach the end credits incredibly wealthy, having made a huge profit on the new drug.
Yet another theme has Crowley wrestling with the problem of time. If he works hard on a cure, he'll miss out on spending time with his kids, and if he fails, then all his time away from them will have been wasted. The movie depicts this drama mostly through dialogue, because whenever we see Crowley actually in scenes with his kids, there's no tension (aside from the fact that nearly every scene is about a setback or tragedy of some kind). It doesn't help that the kids look like cute products of central casting rather than genuine offspring with a genuine emotional connection. Little Megan in particular always has something peppy to say, and we're supposed to marvel at her constant strength and will power. Then there's Keri Russell, cast as Mrs. Crowley, who has nothing to do other than either praise or yell at her husband.
In other words, the movie has no real interest in characters, or family, or science, or corporate greed, or history, and it only uses these things sporadically, intermittently to fit the mood of the latest plot twist. It's a lazy movie, constantly falling back on real-life heroics to support the sagging fictional scenes. It's as if director Vaughan put more thought into that five-second title card, "based on a true story" (or "inspired by true events," or whatever the latest terminology is) than he put into the rest of the movie. True events deserve better than this.