Pharma Bro, a new documentary that had a brief release late last year and landed on Hulu this week, seeks to apply the Framing Britney Spears formula to one of the world's most vilified figures, the "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli. The problem is the film does this in a bizarre and half-assed way, and Shkreli is in no way deserving of a redemption arc.
Shkreli was first in the news as a young pharmaceutical entrepreneur, who was vilified when the company he ran raised the price of a crucial AIDS drug by more than 5000 percent. A few years later, Shkreli was convicted on federal charges of securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud, in connection with a Ponzi scheme unrelated to the AIDS drug, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. In the time in between, everywhere from CNBC to his own live streams, Shkreli sought to cultivate a persona of a despicable villain, a campaign that included some extreme sexual harassment of female journalists.
Shkreli was clearly inspired, at least to some degree, by Donald Trump, who was ramping up his presidential campaign around the same time. The movie spends a lot of time exploring the question of whether Shkreli's persona is real or not, but what it doesn't get is that that's ultimately a distinction without a difference. He said and did all those things, so who cares if it's all a joke? The movie falsely believes that it matters whether he's trolling—and even worse, it also believes that Shkreli’s interesting. There's no mystery here—Shkreli comes across in every way as an asshole.
There was a bonkers story last year where a woman who worked as a journalist for Bloomberg News and had covered Shkreli's legal case professed to be in love with him; she's interviewed here. Is says a lot that she's one of the film's more level-headed and sympathetic interview subjects.
I keep an informal list each year of the biggest real-life villains in documentaries, and Pharma Bro might re-write that list, and not just in regard to Shkreli himself. His on-screen defenders, including a creature of YouTube called "Billy the Fridge," are less than stellar character witnesses. The filmmaker, Brent Hodge, starts out doing a Michael Moore-like schtick where he puts himself at the center of the documentary. But later, he resembles a stalker, going so far as to move into Shkreli's Brooklyn apartment building to get closer to him.
Meanwhile, Milo Yiannopoulos’ in the movie for 15 straight minutes, apparently angling for an undeserved comeback of his own. Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang Clan is also interviewed, about that weird episode in which the group made only a single copy of an album, and Shkreli won the bidding for it for a reported $2 million (the album was later seized as part of a civil asset forfeiture). To his credit, the rapper has some foul-mouthed things to say about the pharma bro.
When it comes to Shkreli's more despicable acts, the film argues that jacking up the price of AIDS medication was more the fault of the system that allowed it, rather than the guy who actually exploited it. I'm all for reforms to make such a practice illegal. As for the fraud, the film's got nothing, except to say that other people have done worse. There are many inequities in the criminal justice system, which lead to terrible injustices in which innocent people go to jail and guilty people go free. But none of those apply to Martin Shkreli, who was convicted of federal crimes and deserved to be. He's not the one suffering under the boot of an unfair system, and neither is Elizabeth Holmes or Ghislaine Maxwell.