No one likes Martin Shkreli, and Pharma Bro isn’t going to change that. More frustrating, however, is that director Brent Hodge’s documentary (on VOD Oct. 5) provides scant insight into the notorious price-gouger who in 2015 made national headlines after his pharmaceutical firm Turing acquired Daraprim—a drug designed to treat toxoplasmosis in AIDS patients, pregnant women, and cancer sufferers—and promptly increased its per-pill cost from $13.50 to $750. If you’re familiar with the story of Shkreli, you know what Hodge’s film has to offer: namely, a lot of Shkreli smirking in photos, being rude to reporters, and staging confrontational livestreams in which he does his best to play the part of a Big Pharma supervillain.
Hodge wants to investigate Shkreli as both an everyday guy and as a comic-book baddie à la Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, and the Joker, with the latter vein addressed by Henderson State University professor of psychology Dr. Travis Langley from inside Brooklyn’s St. Mark’s Comics, as well as underlined by occasional superhero-style graphics. In those passages, Langley opines about the motivations and desires of the Penguin and the Riddler, suggesting that Shkreli maybe just needs a friend. Such ideas, alas, don’t hold much weight in the context of Pharma Bro, which is largely a compendium of clips, news articles and interviews that paint him as the embodiment of unchecked capitalistic greed and 21st-century online trolling.
To get closer to Shkreli, Hodge follows him around NYC and, eventually, moves into his apartment building, all while endlessly watching the livestreams Shkreli broadcasts from his home, during which he gives out his phone number and takes calls from strangers (many of whom he berates), plays guitar, chats with his cat, brashly counters (if not outright harasses) his critics, and says a lot of obnoxious and outrageous things in order to get a rise out of people. Friends like rapper Billy the Fridge opine about how Shkreli knowingly plays the part of the antagonist in some modern-media spectacle of his own making, and the footage on display confirms this—the eagerness with which Shkreli pokes at everyone and anyone who dares talk about, or to, him is so extreme that it comes across as a put-on. Shkreli leans into the hate, embraces it, and then spews it right back at those hurling it his way.
Pharma Bro uses Shkreli’s livestreams as a means of letting the man tell his own tale, but Hodge thinks there’s something even deeper lurking beneath this public image—a real Martin Shkreli who’s presumably more sensitive, or earnest, or generous, or humane. Daraprim patient Patrick Rice discusses how, via an online AMA, he asked Shkreli about the high price of his medicine, and wound up getting it for free courtesy of the Turin bigwig. The suggestion is that Shkreli was telling the truth when he claimed that the drug’s astronomical price wouldn’t prevent those in need from receiving it. That anecdote aside, however, the film offers up no evidence that Shkreli is someone other than who he made himself out to be for the cameras and the courtroom, where he was convicted in 2017 of a separate offense—that of fraud related to his hedge fund businesses, landing him seven years in jail—after his lawyers first had to dismiss over 200 potential jurors from the trial for having an innate bias against their client.
Meanwhile, Ghostface Killah appears on-camera to chat about Shkreli’s other claim to infamy: spending $2 million on the sole copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s mythic album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Regarding the man’s supervillain reputation, as well as their public TMZ-fueled feud, Ghostface states, “He’s not that dude. And I’m not one to promote violence. But for him? I don’t give a fuck.” Pharma Bro will similarly not make anyone care much about Shkreli, although alt-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos and former Bloomberg reporter Christie Smythe do deliver less-than-disparaging commentary about him. Then again, since Yiannopoulos is a white nationalist provocateur who’s seen splashing around in a bathtub full of blood at an NYC art show, and Smythe fell in love with Shkreli and is now his fiancée, these aren’t the respectable, objective voices likely to sway most.
Pharma Bro assembles an expansive collection of headlines, courtroom sketches, and Shkreli TV appearances and tweets in the process capturing the highly contemporary way in which Shkreli exploited modern media outlets for his own fame. Rarely has anyone believed more strongly that all press is good press. Yet there’s not much here that hasn’t already been seen or heard before, and certainly no novel perspective that throws this saga into a fresh light. In search of the authentic Shkreli, Hodge even travels to the Albanian town of Shkrel, whose inhabitants all assume its name, and who profess to the director that they’re proud of Shkreli for his accomplishments in America. In terms of meaningful revelations, though, what the director turns up is a whole lot of nothing.
The overriding impression left by Pharma Bro is that the Shkreli everyone has grown to loathe is the only Shkreli that exists. Hodge is so desperate for first-hand contact that he ultimately introduces himself to Shkreli on the street, and later rings his doorbell and offers him a six-pack of beer, thereby netting himself some brief time in Shkreli’s apartment. Yet the faint glimmers of normalcy spied in these interactions aren’t enough to imply that Shkreli is a more complicated or sympathetic figure than we’ve been led to believe. The film merely reaffirms that he’s an ambitious entrepreneur who saw a financial opportunity and exploited it to the hilt, and then doubled-down when calls for his head rang out. To paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, he is exactly who we thought he was.
Pharma Bro concludes by underlining that Shkreli’s story is really an argument for stricter drug-pricing controls, and it’s hard to imagine most viewers disagreeing with that assessment. When it comes to Shkreli himself, however, the film proves more of a surface-level rehash than an illuminating exposé.