The thought of a deep-dive into the mind of Martin Shkreli—whose adoption of the now (in)famous moniker “Pharma Bro” lends director Brent Hodge his title—is a tough ask for anyone, let alone for a film that works towards competing ends. Trying to both contextualize the rabid media cycle that crucified Shkreli for his main claim to fame—that is, price gouging the antiparasitic drug Daraprim, used mainly for patients with HIV/AIDS—and also psychoanalyze his confrontational personality, Hodge’s film is a curious hybrid. As much about Hodge’s own attempts to ingratiate himself with Shkreli—for journalistic reasons, of course—“Pharma Bro” succeeds in chronicling Shkreli’s rise and media-circus induced free fall, but mainly fails to present Shkreli as the complex, semi-tragic, villain that Hodge so desperately wants him to be.
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Featuring an eclectic group of talking heads outside of the traditional academics and journalists, “Pharma Bro ” also includes Shkreli (fr)enemy rapper Billy the Fridge, Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killer, and Milo Yiannopoulous (remember him?), all of whom speak to Shkreli’s preternatural ability to really piss people off. Yet, the film begins and is somewhat structured around Hodge’s own attempts to get to know Shkreli. Foregrounding his own personal process, “Pharma Bro ” essentially splits its time between sketching out a portrait of unchecked late-stage capitalistic greed while, also, the pitfalls of the artist becoming the subject of his own narrative.
Treating Shkreli’s early life as essentially a villain origin story, Hodge tracks his subject from his early career in hedge-funds to his eventual move into the pharmaceutical space, where he became CEO of both Retrophin and Turing Pharmaceuticals. From there, his abrupt change in price for Daraprim—increasing the price of a single pill from $13.50 to $750—gets the attention of the New York Times, and eventually a number of other media outlets as well. Not helping his own case, Shkreli also had a penchant for livestreaming his entire life—giving out his phone number to anyone watching, and trolling callers when they dial-in.
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“Pharma Bro” cuts between Hodge’s own movements, talking-head journalists who contextualize Shkreli’s behavior against the larger corruption of American healthcare, and friends and colleagues who suggest that Shkreli is, perhaps, just simply misunderstood. This final point is most contentious, but also the one Hodge’s film desperately clings to. The idea that his trollish nature has origins within his childhood or, perhaps, an undiagnosed mental disorder (as his lawyer suggests) is interesting but is also used by the film to essentially drag the media for reducing Shkreli to a punchline.
Framed within the discourse of comic books, Hodge gives ample screen time to comparisons between Shkreli and, say, Dr. Doom or the Joker. Yet, this central thesis is never really proven, as we see Shkreli on livestream after livestream berating anyone who dares call him, saving most of his venom for female journalists who wrote about him. Sure, his girlfriend thought he was an okay guy—mainly because they used to solve math problems together (an odd tangent that makes even less sense in the film)—and Yiannopoulous thinks he’s simply a provocateur, but are these the sources that we really should be listening to? When a late-act revelation that one of the reporters that have been extensively interviewed is now Shkreli’s fiance, one wonders why Hodge gives such time to clearly biased sources.
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Where Hodge personally lands is anyone’s guess, as he eventually moves into Shkreli’s apartment building to get closer to him, and even shows up at his door with a six-pack of beer, at one point. Yet, one gets the idea that Hodge is sympathetic to a certain extent, as he essentially stalks the guy hoping for something—the film is incredibly nebulous in explaining why Hodge cares so much. Buried within this odd framing is a much more complex film that wrestles with the larger problems of drug pricing, and the faceless pharmaceutical companies that are, perhaps, a bit smarter than Shkreli is when it comes to media attention. Even more fascinating is how Shkreli essentially tries to reframe his practices as political once the FBI starts investigating him, believing that associating with the alt-right might help him avoid prosecution.
But, “Pharma Bro” is only tangentially interested in these topics, more content to frame its titular subject as a misunderstood comic book villain that Hodge can rub shoulders with. By the time Shkreli is sentenced—for securities fraud, unrelated to price-gouging, mind you—the film has zoomed in so close to Shkreli that the main takeaway is less about the systems that allow people like him to exist. Instead, Hodge treats him as an entertaining anomaly, diagnosable in his cruel behavior, and someone you cannot look away from. [C+]
“Pharma Bro” is available now on VOD.