The documentary Off Label has more characters than it knows what to do with: a sixtysomething man still suffering the aftereffects of a medical experiment he participated in as a prisoner during the 1960s; a bipolar woman who lives in a Bigfoot museum; a veteran suffering from PTSD; a crust punk couple raising money for their wedding by participating in tests at the Mayo Clinic; two professional human guinea pigs; a mother whose son committed suicide while taking part in a drug trial; even a former pharmaceutical rep whose mannered presence (think Will Forte doing a Michael Stuhlbarg impression) makes the whole thing seem like a mockumentary. The idea, it seems, is to cram as much Big Pharma-related human-interest material as possible into 80 minutes; for maximum digestibility, everything is cut up into vignette-sized chunks and flavored like boutique web content.
Unsurprisingly, the movie ends up feeling impersonal. Co-directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri—who previously collaborated on October Country, a documentary about Mosher’s family—are more interested in using their interview subjects to illustrate a simple thesis than in observing them closely. Their approach consists largely of introducing each person’s name via lowercase Helvetica text and then blending handheld on-location interviews with arty shallow-focus close-ups. Ironically, this ends up reducing each person in the movie to little more than a case study—which is precisely the sort of cynicism that Mosher and Palmieri are railing against.
Hypocrisy aside, Off Label’s biggest problem is that, for a movie that features a lot of people talking about a lot of things, it doesn’t have a lot to say; its scatterbrained, switching-between-browser-tabs structure guarantees that no idea gets developed very far. Yet though Off Label mostlyfails as both an investigation of pharmaceutical ethics and an anti-corporate screed, it does offer fitful, fascinating glimpses into the subculture of human guinea pigs. The image of an arm scarred by thousands of injections resonates more powerfully—and says more about the pharmaceutical industry—than any of the movie’s half-dozen slick tales of medical tragedy.