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Not Quite as Dumb as it Looks: Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser inspire us with the true health care events of Extraordinary Measures 

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Now here's something strange: Extraordinary Measures is essentially a bad television movie played out on a big screen - a banal exercise in paint-by-numbers drama - and then, unbeknownst to itself, it's also a powerful cinematic critique of the American medical industrial complex.

From the director of What Happens In Vegas, this is an idiot savant of a movie. Utterly oblivious to the recent political battles over health care reform, Extraordinary Measures has blundered onto the scene, and by the dullness of its narrative, far exceeds the comparatively mild attempts of Sicko and John Q in exposing the American health care system's dark side.

Although the movie is tedious, it is a must-see for all the reasons CBS Films didn't notice. For the conservatives, it will blandly point out the dire need for change. For the liberals, it will boringly explain fiscal responsibility. For everyone, it will mark the melancholy moment of Harrison Ford trading in swashbuckler status for crotchety-old-man-who-shouts-at-paper-boy mediocrity.

Ford, as executive producer, changed a story element in order to put himself in the role of Dr. Stonehill - a University research scientist with a theory on how to cure the rare Pompe disease. Actually, the work was done by Dr. Yuan Tsong Chen, but never mind. In the film, we are introduced to two children who suffer from the illness - a progressive muscle weakness affecting vital organs - who are the son and daughter of pharmaceutical company executive John Crowley (Brendan Fraser).

He discovers Dr. Stonehill on the Internet and travels to Nebraska to persuade him to make his theory a reality. The struggle to get the cure developed is labyrinthian, revealing an array of black holes in the U.S. healthcare system.

The film accidentally shows how a cure for a rare disease might not get created because the cure would only be of use to the small number of people who suffer from Pompe - 10,000 worldwide - and therefore is not potentially profitable. A useless drug that could be marketed to millions of healthy people, however, (like, for example, the female version of Viagra) attracts investors like moths to a light bulb. Also, this film exposes (accidentally again) how a cure for a disease might get lost in the competition of rival pharmaceutical companies because open discussion of critical findings in research is disallowed. And in new realms of unintentional dark comedy, the film goes overboard talking about profitability, conflicts of interest, and business plans until the children are forgotten in the fight over whether the drug can cut a fat check.

Two of the persuasive points made by those fighting health care reform - that the U.S. system's burgeoning wealth allows for able pursuit of medical advancements, and that nationalized health systems reduce people to numbers - are blindly crushed by this story. Here, deaths are "acceptable losses" marked out in the business plan. Lifespans are seen in terms of dollars spent. The Crowley family's insurance pays out $40,000 dollars a month to keep the children alive. The drug eventually created has a price tag of $300,000 per year, and is not covered by most U.S. health insurance companies.

But it's OK because the film's bizarre final sentence reassures us that, in the end, money was indeed made - though of course not as much as Dr. Stonehill could have made if he'd whipped up Viagra for the ladies.

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Extraordinary Measures ★★✩✩✩

Starring Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell. Directed by Tom Vaughan. Rated PG.

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