Healing Is Good Business
Typically, a parent scrambling to find someone to cure their sick child is the domain of made-for-TV movies. In Extraordinary Measures, this potentially syrupy subject matter is given considerable substance and is handled capably enough to deserve a theatrical release.
In essence, the moral of the fact-based tale is that healing and profits are not mutually exclusive. Business is not the enemy of zeal; it can even contribute to our collective well-being. While the role of venture capital and corporate protocols certainly differentiate the heart-tugging story, they also help keep a lid on bathos and schmaltz. Because there's nothing exceptional going on cinematically, you might consider them lifesavers.
To emerge from the multiplex in the midst of the Great Recession slightly more hopeful about capitalism qualifies as remarkable. Who can object to making tons of money while combating the dreadful genetic disease attacking your 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter? Of course, it helps if you're a Harvard MBA and have the opportunity to set up a biotech firm with a scientist doing groundbreaking work into that very ailment.
That's the case with the father played by Brendan Fraser. John Crowley lives with his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) and three children in Portland. He's a midlevel sales exec for Bristol-Myers and we meet him rushing from work to attend his wheelchair-bound daughter Megan's birthday. Like her younger brother (but unlike their older sibling), she suffers from Pompe Disease, an inherited condition in which a missing enzyme allows sugar to build up in the muscles, rendering them useless and leading to the fatal enlargement of vital organs.
The Crowley's are a model family, possessing both the means and temperament to shoulder $40,000 of medical expenses per month and provide the children with as normal a life as possible. Scant attention is paid to this so-called "orphan disease" in medical research circles. The most promising work on Pompe is being done at the University of Nebraska by a gruff scientist. Dr. Robert Stonehill, portrayed by Harrison Ford, is prone to blasting classic rock in his lab; his absent-mindedness and paucity of social skills feed into his frustrations about being under-funded and unappreciated.
After numerous attempts to reach him by phone, and following a harrowing near-death episode, John flies to Nebraska and corners Stonehill at the local rib joint. Over beers and barbecue, Crowley desperately pledges to raise $500,000 to help fund Stonehill's work on an enzyme replacement therapy. A few months later, Stonehill counters with his own proposition: Why don't they start their own biotech company?
Overcoming their own personal biases and predilections, they each put everything on the line in an attempt to build a business with the immediate goal of conducting clinical trials for an enzyme replacement therapy within a year. The difficulties they face raising $10 million, setting up a lab, and doing the actual scientific work are not as predictable as one might expect, deriving from organic obstacles within the modern business environment.
"Inspired by" Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anan's book "The Cure," the movie doesn't forgo the usual dramatic impediments. What it does differently is bring together the perspectives of corporate bean-counters, a scientist with integrity, and a determined parent driven by the most personal and emotional motive imaginable.
Scottish-born director Tom Vaughan, whose two previous films Starter for 10 and What Happens in Vegas couldn't be more different than this or each other, neatly calibrates the interplay between science, seed money, and sentimentality. Fraser and Ford do competent work, bringing the right amount of gravitas, if not animation, to their roles. The supporting players are first-rate, including Ms. Russell, Jared Harris and Meredith Droeger as young Megan.
The result is more complex than anticipated, albeit choppy and merely workmanlike in places. There are the canned lines ("I can't just sit around and wait for my kids to die. I won't do it!) but also insights into an entrepreneurial process that many viewers might view suspiciously or consider out of their reach.
Extraordinary Measures suggests that fiscal constraints, bureaucratic red tape, and interpersonal conflicts are not always the enemy of scientific progress or human happiness. The system can work if the interplay between objective reasoning and subjective passion is properly controlled. Efficiently and fairly deploying its fruits is the sphere of business and politics.
To the chagrin of those backing the film, these laws also govern the entertainment industry. And so, while Extraordinary Measures is unique and worthy in many respects, the majority of movie consumers are likely to direct their resources elsewhere.
(Released by CBS Films and rated "PG" for thematic material, language and a mild suggestive moment.)