Sunday, July 25, 2010

Prophet and Loss

The standard rap on Extraordinary Measures (2010) is that is just a TV "disease of the week" movie. That seems very wide of the mark. The film feels like a strange defense--or perhaps apology--for capitalism; specifically, capitalism in the area of pharmaceuticals. Moreover, it is taken as a given that this is the only right and proper way to conduct biochemical research, by developing and preparing a product for market. They even get the father of two very sick children to buy into these weird assumptions.

Yet at the same time, the story contains its own indictment of this corrupt system. I wish Michael Moore had seen this movie before he launched Capitalism: A Love Story. It contains much stronger arguments than the weak tea Moore served up.

However, don't avoid the movie because you think you saw it when it was called Lorenzo's Oil. There isn't a whole hell of a lot of time spent with sick kids. They are merely a premise to get the story started. The bulk of the story is about creating a pharmaceutical start-up, getting bought out by Big Pharma and rushing to market to an inferior, but more easily manufactured drug. This is supposed to be a story of hope and aspiration? Everyone is compromised here. Yes, the kids don't die, and that's good, but not because of anything but parental determination, which is almost a sidebar to the main story.

With the center of the story dedicated to a peculiar economic-political argument, one is left to contemplate the thwarted father-son relationship between Brendan Frazier's character and that played by Harrison Ford. How to consider the variety of acting these men do? Frazier's greatest performance is still George of the Jungle, and that air of hopeful bewilderment still does him good in Extraordinary Measures. Most of the film his job is to just run around and tell every one to hurry up before his kids die, and I wonder if he was simply channeling the spirit of the first assistant director. As for Harrison Ford, much is made these days of the fact that he has not won an Academy Award, just like Cary Grant (who won a lifetime award, but not a competitive one). And it is true that actors like Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne only won Oscars when they had an eye patch, a funny accent or a mental breakdown; what they did in movie after movie, the work that built their reputation, was never recognized for its greatness.

This has had a deleterious effect on Mr. Ford, who evidently decided to crank up his natural grouchiness so that his acting would be more apparent. It becomes more offensive when one reads that although the film treats his character as if it were a true-life person, even giving him an after-story in the end title cards, he is playing a fictitious creation, loosely based on the accomplishments of an Asian doctor. Here I was feeling all sympathetic for the sad lonely person in the story and then I find out I'm just feeling sorry for a millionaire actor with a family and a home in the mountains! The heck with him.

The film tries to pump up its reality credentials by showing you the real family the story is based on at the end of the film, but it has the opposite effect, when you realize how the facts have been prettied up and rearranged, to the extent that you have no idea what it is you were rooting for, or what qualities the film wants to celebrate.

Except of course that capitalism is great, even when it's too expensive to make drugs the right way and distribute them to the people that need them, whether or not they can pay. A film to warm the heart of any right-thinking all-American Big Pharma lawyer.

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