'Off Label' too unclear, inconsistent to make point

'Off Label,' which screened on Friday at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, follows no principles of effective storytelling and fails to draw connections between unrelated individuals.

Watching Off Label is like being in a conversation with a reasonably intelligent but digressive person. It starts on a broad topic and jumps from tangent to tangent, trying unsuccessfully to tie them all together until it’s not clear what point it’s trying to make at all. Maybe all of the points. Maybe none of them.

The film’s title suggests that it follows off-label use of pharmaceutical drugs. Indeed one of the subjects, a former drug representative, speaks on that topic and on how his job involved learning how doctors prescribed drugs for reasons they weren’t specifically created for.

But the film also follows people who make their livings being part of drug testing. One man is a homeless gambling addict who depends on drug tests to live. Another uses his money to write books about misuse of pharmaceutical drugs. One pair of drug testers uses the money to fund their wedding, and otherwise don’t seem affected by the drugs at all.

And then there’re the victims and abusers of pharmaceutical drugs. One woman lost her son after a drug test drove him further into suicidal depression. Another has longstanding health problems after he took part in testing in prison. Yet another is a former soldier at Abu Ghraib who claims the drugs aren’t helping his PTSD. Another still lives in a Bigfoot Museum and says the drugs help her severe bipolar disorder, but she takes 20 pills a day and plays doctors to get them.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in 80 minutes, and if the plot summary seems rambling and disjointed, ding ding ding.

Directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri have said they didn’t want to make an advocacy film, but they don’t seem to know what kind of film they wanted to make at all. Perhaps the film is trying to put a human face on test subjects and show how incoherent and inconsistent the pharmaceutical process is, but that would require clear and consistent rhetoric. Or a certain amount of perspective. Or a clear rhyme and reason to the edits. Or at least some sort of guiding principle.

Instead, Off Label just throws a bunch of people together and jumps back and forth between them arbitrarily. Not a single edit in the film makes one bit of syntactic sense, and after a while, it’s hard not to ask, “OK, what do these people have anything to do with each other?”

Some of the material is effective: The former drug rep is consistently amusing and informative, while the woman who lost her son is frequently moving. But they feel like they belong in different movies. Being put alongside material that’s either irrelevant (the wedding couple) or unintentionally exploitative (the gambling addict, whose problems clearly don’t stem from drug testing) certainly doesn’t help. Off Label wants to be an eclectic experience. Instead, it’s just incoherent.

Photo courtesy of Tula Goenka.

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