There’s a fundamental tension in the true-ish drama Extraordinary Measures that lifts it above the formula disease-of-the-week picture. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, an executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb with a daughter and son who have the rare “Pompe disease,” a cousin to muscular dystrophy that fatally weakens muscles—including the biggie, the heart. Although Crowley works for Big Pharma, there’s no discussion in the movie of his particular company’s doing research for a cure. Pompe is an “orphan disease,” which means giant pharmaceutical and biotech entities have little financial incentive to pay attention to it. Instead, the distraught Crowley tracks down Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), a cranky scientist in Nebraska with big ideas but few resources. With the clock ticking on his children’s lives, Crowley forms a company with Stonehill and goes in search of venture capital. He has to convince corporate bottom-liners that despite his personal stake, he can coolly calculate profit margins and patient “acceptable loss” percentages. When a bigger company buys his own and there’s finally a drug to test, he learns his dying daughter and son are too old for the trials. Treating them wouldn’t be cost-effective.
The real Crowley, as portrayed in Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand’s 2006 book The Cure, might agree with Michael Moore on the doggone unfairness of it all, but he rarely questions the economic system that makes him rich while letting his kids die. (A Harvard Business School graduate, Crowley toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate in 2008 on the Republican ticket.) Robert Nelson Jacobs’s screenplay doesn’t address that grim capitalist irony directly, either, but Jacobs and director Tom Vaughan build every scene around it. Ford’s Stonehill is fictional—a composite—and his confrontations with Crowley come down to pure science versus the demands of the marketplace. What complicates their dynamic is that Stonehill isn’t a humanist—he’s an asshole—while Crowley ends up arguing on behalf of economic forces that are not always in his children’s interest. Like Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness, Vaughan and Jacobs strike a balance between Horatio Alger hustle and dread. No matter how conventionally “inspiring” the story, when a corporatist patriarch can barely protect his spawn, there’s a fissure in the capitalism-nature continuum.
Anyway, I cried. A lot. What can I say? I’m a sucker for kids on ventilators. When Crowley tells his daughter (Meredith Droeger) in the ICU that he’ll find a “special medicine” to save her, she makes him promise it will be pink—dark pink not light pink, which is “babyish.” That killed me. Yet for all the obvious tear-duct-squeezing, Vaughan handles the child actors with restraint.
Fraser doesn’t suggest the drive of the real Crowley, who looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and Steve Carell, but he’s such a haggard lump of vulnerability that my heart went out to him. Extraordinary Measures has a soppy piano-and-strings score, but the primal fear of loss sharpens every scene. Harrison Ford’s company bought the rights to Anand’s book, and the role of Stonehill has been made to fit his mature temperament. Which is to say he barks a lot and never cracks a smile. Something bilious in Ford seems to have taken over and worn him down to sinews and sourness. He’s not especially convincing as an eccentric, obsessive scientist who blasts rock and roll while scrawling equations—his rock-hard pecs suggest he spends more time pumping iron than poring over enzymes. But he’s the star who made Extraordinary Measures happen. If the film does well and Pompe disease gets more attention and funding, well—that’s the showbiz side of capitalism, which strives for a balance between box-office and beneficence.
Steve Buscemi cuts so droll and heart-wrenching a figure in Hue Rhodes’s deadpan road movie Saint John of Las Vegas that the plot—shaggy and inconsequential as it is—gets in the way. Buscemi plays the title role, a compulsive gambler who flees Vegas after a hair-raising unlucky streak and takes a desk job at an Albuquerque auto-insurance firm. He has the look of a man who’s escaped from cannibals in mid–head shrink: gray skin pulled tight, cadaverous hollows, eyes bulging in fear. High-strung as he is, though, Buscemi won’t be cast as the next Barney Fife. His voice is dry, world-weary, and his air of haunted fatalism gives him stature.
It’s too bad Sarah Silverman plays the dotty officemate who falls for him. I love her stand-up, but her acting is all hipster camp—and she and Buscemi don’t mesh. When John and a fraud investigator (Romany Malco) head back to Vegas to investigate a stripper’s injury claim, the film turns into one of those indie parades of eccentrics that are hit-and-miss but mostly miss. One bit, though, is genius. John interviews a tow-truck driver (John Cho) who moonlights as a carnival human torch—only his torch suit has malfunctioned and the poor man has to sit behind his tent and wait for his fuel tank to empty. Every twenty seconds, in mid-conversation, he bursts into flames, and the interview stops until they die down. It’s so poetically apt. Their situations are different, but John and Torch share a stoic dignity. They hold on to hope even in a world that delivers regular scorchings.