Movie review: 'Off Label' takes unique view of Big Pharma's influence

If ever a documentary topic lent itself to the facts-figures-and-outrage approach, it's Big Pharma's pervasiveness in modern medicine. Instead of taking the obvious route, the new film "Off Label" adopts an elliptical strategy that proves as effective as it is unexpected. Directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher have interwoven portraits of eight Americans whose lives revolve, in various ways, around prescription drugs. From the lyrical to the harrowing, their stories make for an unsettling composite view.

The title refers to the dispensing of drugs for conditions beyond their FDA-approved purposes, a practice that might lead to breakthrough or disaster, but without fail boosts the pharmaceutical industry's profit. A former Pfizer rep, one of the film's subjects, uses the word "shady."

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The most provocative profiles involve people who have participated in clinical drug trials — three voluntarily and one as a prison inmate in the 1960s. The film finds a narrative through line in these professional guinea pigs: a fascinating glimpse of vulnerable lives in the margins.

Listening to a woman describe the details of her son's suicide is the toughest part of the movie to endure, and an Iraq vet's photographic evidence of the horrors he witnessed isn't easy viewing. There's consolation, though, in the ways they've turned their pain into purposeful action against the blind rush toward psychotropics.

With its focus on intimate detail, "Off Label" is not a conventional "issue film" reaching for conclusions. Palmieri and Mosher have taken on a huge and urgent topic, and their work's impact rests on their refusal to tell viewers how to feel.


"Off Label"

Rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles.


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