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Film gives power to people, not disease

POSTED: January 20, 2010 10:00 p.m.
/CBS Films

Brendan Fraser, left, is John Crowley, a father who decides to pursue a cure for his children's Pompe disease with the help of brilliant researcher Dr. Robert Stonehill, played by Harrison Ford, in "Extraordinary Measures."

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Imagine if Archie Bunker were a world-renowned biochemist. That's basically the character Harrison Ford plays in "Extraordinary Measures," and he brings much needed comic relief to an otherwise fairly somber movie.

"Extraordinary Measures" is based on the real story of John (Brendan Fraser) and Aileen Crowley (Keri Russell) and their three children, two of whom were born with a form of muscular dystrophy called Pompe disease. The average life span of Pompe kids is about nine years. Their daughter Megan (Meredith Droeger) is now 9. Patrick (Diego Velazquez) is 6, but his condition is much worse than his sister's. Both kids likely will die within a year.

Everyone tells John and Aileen to spend as much time as possible with their kids while they can, to accept their fate and make the most of what little life their children still have. Instead, John tracks down Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a brilliant but bad-mannered researcher who is working on an enzyme that might help treat the symptoms of Pompe disease.

Against all rational advice, John quits his (very good) job so he can raise capital to fund Stonehill's research. The research is going well, but all the while the Crowley kids are getting weaker and weaker.

Now, you cynics out there (I'm usually one of you) will look at the synopsis and roll your eyes, assuming this is another cheap attempt to use sick kids to evoke tears. But the fact is, it's nigh impossible to watch "Extraordinary Measures" without feeling something for these kids, and the filmmakers are smart enough not to overplay their hand.

It's fun to watch Harrison play a character with so few likeable traits. Stonehill is an unapologetic crank, a genius who could give a damn whether you like him or not. But just like Archie Bunker had a heart buried underneath his craggy exterior, we get to watch Megan uncover Stonehill's soft spot.

Russell is right on the money - again. After "Waitress," I sense that stardom is hers for the taking should she start choosing higher-profile roles.

Fraser continues to stumble along a fine line between charismatic charmer and over-cooked cornball. He underplays some scenes just as they should be, but he trudges through others like he's channeling John Wayne. He carries the movie just fine, but he is much better suited to light-adventure fare.

But Droeger's portrayal of Megan steals the show. Despite her failing body, Megan becomes the strongest person in the film. When she first meets Stonehill, she puts him through a curt Q&A, then challenges him to a race: the middle aged doctor on foot and the 8-year-old girl in her wheelchair. When she wins, she taunts the man who is trying to create medicine to save her life. We like her a lot.

The movie doesn't pack the huge emotional punches you might expect, but I'm counting that as a good thing. They could have easily exploited the condition of terminally ill kids just to make us weep, but they don't.

We definitely sympathize with the kids and cheer on the parents. But if we had sat there pitying these characters, they would have become victims. And that would be a disservice to the real Pompe kids who show so much strength by fighting their disease, the parents who never give up hope and the doctors who work to save their lives.

There are no victims in this movie, only incredibly strong people battling adversity. That's possibly the best part of "Extraordinary Measures." We come away with a sense of the power of people, not the disease.

The trailers make this look like a by-the-numbers, inspirational tear-jerker, but it's better than that. While it's not a great movie, it's an engaging expression of a parent's love and an inspiring look at people discovering empowerment rather than tragedy.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.


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