Having wrestled with steroids in his 2008 documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” Chris Bell expands his purview to tackle America’s legal-drug industry — and the addictions it spawns — with “Prescription Thugs.” Again aping the nonfiction form that made Michael Moore a star, Bell puts himself, and his family, front and center throughout the course of his critique of a business that nets tens of billions a year, and which he believes has fostered a culture in thrall to quick-fix narcotics solutions to life’s every problem. Engaging and enraging but also, alas, consistently superficial, it’s a hot-button work whose easily digested nonfiction methods will appeal to mainstream documentary audiences, even if they also leave viewers hungry for greater substance.
As with his prior film, Bell — delivering hey-I’m-a-regular-guy narration — begins his inquiry by fixating his gaze on his siblings, with particular attention paid to Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, who dreamed of becoming a WWE star but, after a career as a “jobber” (i.e., the anonymous loser that marquee stars beat to a pulp), became despondent and turned to prescription meds as a way to ease his pain. That habit resulted in his untimely death in 2008 at the age of 37, a loss that compelled director Bell, himself hooked on similar meds thanks to hip surgery, to look into the over-the-counter craze consuming the country.
This first leads him to WWE alums Ryan Sakoda (who was once found floating in a swimming pool thanks to an OD) and Matt “Horshu” Wiese (who at his peak consumed 90 pills a day), as well as UFC star Chris Leben (who had a chart detailing his daily consumption). In their horror stories, all of them reminiscent of “Mad Dog’s”, “Prescription Thugs” illustrates how doctor-approved meds — Oxycontin, Ritalin, Prozac, Viagra, Lunesta, etc. — have become ingrained in athletic, and daily, life. Moreover, it shows how these pills’ close chemical relationship to heroin and crystal meth makes them at least as dangerous as those illegal drugs. Especially considering Bell’s own family ties to the wrestling world, these speakers’ anecdotes lend the material an additional dose of unvarnished intimacy and power.
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Not content to simply focus on relatives, friends and associates, however, Bell promptly segues into an overarching condemnation of the profit-driven practices of the pharmaceutical industry, which spends millions on consumer advertising and on lobbying politicians. This is all decried by both Bell and his variety of talking heads, including authors, politicians, and other experts. Yet almost as soon as “Prescription Thugs” goes after Big Pharma, it becomes a monotonous and unenlightening agitprop effort, rife with revelations about corporate behavior — they want to maximize revenue by creating maladies they can medicate! They develop drugs whose side effects need to be treated with more drugs! — that are anything but revelatory.
When Bell asks Cliffside Malibu rehab clinic director Richard Taite why no one stops Big Pharma from doing as it pleases, and he responds with “I don’t want to answer that, you know the answer to that, everybody who’s watching this knows the answer to that,” he gives voice to the primary problem underlying “Prescription Thugs”: It only has obvious things to say about its topic. To compensate for its dearth of bombshells or adequate solutions to the dilemmas it addresses, Bell piles on the aesthetic gimmickry, with an endless barrage of TV news footage, Reagan-era “Just Say No” PSAs, archival movie and TV clips (including from “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), family photos and computer graphics gussying up what amounts to a one-note cinematic warning about the hazards of popping too many pills. It’s a barrage of sound and fury that quickly makes one crave some aspirin.
A late attempt to transition into an even wider discussion about America’s culture of addiction, and about why people look for medicinal solutions to emotional, psychological and physical problems, proves similarly shallow. A climactic disclosure from Bell marks a promising return to more personal filmmaking; too bad, then, that, like the rest of the material, it’s treated not as a jumping-off point for a more in-depth investigation, but rather as just another of his doc’s many cursory, soundbite-friendly details.