Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where did they get the idea that Lorenzo's Oil is sentimental?

With the recent release of "Extraordinary Measures," the inaugural film venture of CBS and Les Moonves, there have been references to "Lorenzo's Oil" cropping up in reviews and articles. No surprise, since the 1992 film has a very similar plot - the parents of a child with an incurable fatal disease beat the odds to find a cure. But according to a recent article by Brooks Barnes of the New York Times, "Lorenzo's Oil" is considered "the industry’s go-to example of overdone sentimentality." To which I can only reply, these mooks obviously haven't seen the film.

Starring Susan Sarandon and a pre-mugshot Nick Nolte as Michaela and Augusto Odone, the parents of the titular six-year old Lorenzo Odone, the film spends the bulk of its running time charting the horrific physical decline of Lorenzo after he is diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD. There is onscreen emotion in abundance, that runs the gamut from the despair of the Odone parents when they learn their son is terminally ill, to unbridled elation when their research yields a potential treatment. Director George Miller ratchets up the intensity to near-operatic heights, even piping in Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," for the most poignant moments.

But would you describe it as sentimental? Maybe for the few minutes of the opening sequence, where Lorenzo is running around the beach as a normal, healthy kid. But after that, the tone of the film turns unrelentingly bleak and harrowing. ALD systematically cripples, blinds, mutes, deafens, and eventually kills the boys afflicted with it, and there's no attempt to sugarcoat this for the audience. The disease not only destroys Lorenzo, but turns his parents into agonized, desperate souls out of a high-numbered circle of Dante's Hell. The performances of Nolte and Sarandon are excellent, conveying the crushing emotional, mental, and physical toll of the day-to-day decline. Sarandon's iron-willed Michaela Odone is especially memorable, and it's no surprise the role netted her an Oscar nod.

Of course there are a good number of the usual cliches. The Odones have to contend with unfeeling medical professionals, impassive academics, and complacent, resigned fellow parents of similarly afflicted children. A few months of independent research and haphazard testing lead to miraculous results rather than deadly failures. We even have a Magic Negro in Lorenzo's male nurse, whose onscreen presence is mercifully limited. At the time of release, the major controversy was that the treatment discovered by the Odones might be grossly oversold as a miracle cure to the detriment of other ALD patients. The film ends with a video-mosaic of boys supposedly saved by the treatment, but recent clinical trials suggest limited benefits, if any.

Still, none of this adds up to anything resembling schmaltz. "Lorenzo's Oil" is genuinely affecting, because it presents the unflichingly dark emotional reality of its characters, and it's only after monumental struggle that hope and relief appear, and then only briefly. Lorenzo's parents turn on each other and turn on themselves as the disease progresses. Lorenzo himself has little to do on screen despite being the center of the story, and at no point does he mug for the camera or spout cloying platitudes. This is by far the best and most high profile of the small genre of "search for a cure" films. I suppose that's the problem, as nothing else out there comes close to its level. Rather, medical dramas, especially involving children, are the common domain of made-for-TV offerings that are overly sentimental practically by definition.

In short, a very good film has been lumped together with a lot of very bad ones. And it doesn't deserve it.

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