Unconventional doctoring: ‘Extraordinary Measures’ plays off a wrenching tale
In “Extraordinary Measures,’’ the camera spends a lot of time staring at the lines and circles on Brendan Fraser’s face. He plays a pharmaceutical marketing executive who pushes to find a drug that will treat a deadly strain of muscular dystrophy that afflicts two of his children. The focus on Fraser’s puddling eyes or his face wrenching before a crying jag - on his emotional state - feels like something new for the sick-kid movie: Dads hurt, too.
This is a genre that tends to exploit the fight against disease in order to exalt mothers. Here, all the haggard-parent reaction shots go to Fraser. Although by the time he attempts to weep while sliding down a closed door, you wish someone had told him to leave that to the experts at Lifetime.
Loosely based on true events that happened a decade ago in Cambridge, “Extraordinary Measures’’ is entertaining enough. It’s the first horse out of the gate from CBS’s new theatrical division, and, without a trace of shame it plays like one of the network’s movies of the week, despite the off-the-rack medical-thriller title. But the screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs affirms life and jerks tears with welcome degrees of humor and muscle.
“Extraordinary Measures’’ is basically a love story between two men. Fraser’s executive, John Crowley, secures funding that helps Dr. Robert Stonehill, a crusty scientific genius played by Harrison Ford, develop the drug. Stonehill is a maverick who’s been working on a treatment for years but lacked the budget to realize his breakthrough.
When Crowley tells Stonehill that he had to cut a deal for the first round of funding, they start growling at each other. It’s the sort of screaming match that, were Fraser a woman, would have ended with the two in each other’s arms. Instead, the doctor helps the executive rinse a cut. It’s adorable. Cuter is the way Stonehill calls Crowley “Jersey,’’ after Crowley’s home state. It’s just like Ford would do for Karen Allen or Michelle Pfeiffer.
For the record, Crowley has a wife (Keri Russell). She appears only half as saintly as her husband, and Russell’s chemistry with Fraser is only half as good as his is with Ford. All the good writing is saved for scenes among the men - Jared Harris plays one of the uptight executives at the biotech company that winds up bringing Crowley and Stonehill into its fold.
We’re meant to be moved by the race to prolong the lives of the Crowley children, one of whom is a ball of spunk played by Meredith Droeger. And it’s touching. But “Extraordinary Measures,’’ which Tom Vaughn directed and is based on “The Cure,’’ a nonfiction book by former Globe reporter Geeta Anand, is much more interesting as a glimpse into the world of funding and developing drugs. The story has been moved from Cambridge to Seattle, and
The movie might like money more than science (both the house and the pharma in this movie are big). But it takes the science much more seriously than similar movies do. Listening to Ford say things like “We’ve got to get better cleavage between the alpha and beta subunits’’ never gets old. It’s nice to see him, once again, happily playing the unsentimental grouch. Ford - and Fraser - make this melodrama, with all its suits and lab coats, more watchable than it has any business being.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.