Purchased by Netflix during the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Pain Hustlers is the ”based on a true story” medical crime tale that focuses on a fentanyl-laced pain killer and the financially & morally bankrupt pharmaceutical start-up that used bribery and illegal branding tactics to save their company and bring their drug to the masses. The screenplay is penned by Wells Tower and adapted from the book of the same name (originally titled The Hard Sell) by Evan Hughes.
Pain Hustlers lays out the tale of corporate greed through the character of Liza Drake, a high school dropout and single mother who finds herself grinding through life one failed career attempt at a time. While dancing at a local strip club, Liza encounters Pete Brenner, a pharmaceutical sales rep for failing startup Zanna Therapeutics. After talking (and drinking) for a while, Pete offers Liza a job opportunity at his company. Though reluctant at first, Liza decides to take him up on his offer after she loses her job and her place to live.
With the pressures of a company on the brink of financial ruin and the potential of losing her daughter, Liza convinces a strip mall physician to write a script for her company’s painkiller Lonafen, a fentanyl-based drug designed for cancer patients. Soon, Liza and Pete hook their whale through an illegal speaker program and it sets off a chain reaction of more scripts, more doctors, and more illegal tactics to keep the lavish lifestyle they’ve created. As the illegal activities turn to off-brand marketing and prescriptions for any form of pain, Liza starts to question what monster she may have helped create and how such a behemoth could be stopped.
Led by 3-time BAFTA Nominee Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place, Oppenheimer) as Liza, the film boasts an impressive cast featuring MCU & Knives Out star Chris Evans as Pete, Oscar-nominee Andy Garcia as Dr. Neel, and Schitt’s Creek standout Catherine O’Hara as Liza’s mother Jackie.
While the names on the streaming marquee may stand out, the film, sadly, does not. With hopes of being on the level with the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, Pain Hustlers is a far less provocative & interesting version of the “white collar crime that ruined us” story. Coupled with the recent stretch of successful streaming TV mini-series based on the corporate greed of the Opioid Epidemic (Hulu’s Dopesick, Netflix’s Painkiller), the film falls short of elevating & illuminating the topical matter that has been at the forefront of the public consciousness.
The film’s truest attempt to separate itself from its recent peers is the personalization of the Liza Drake arc. With a single mother trying to provide a life for her daughter, including costly brain surgery, Liza can be a sympathetic figure at times. Add occasional attempts at a moral compass (including the scene when Evans’ Pete character asks to see her tits in the middle of a crisis of faith) and a couple of deaths that hit close to home and you almost have something to grab amongst the greed and gloss.
However, the tone and direction of the film do many things to undercut most of the meaningful messages of the film. The almost satirical needle drops, the cheap use of black and white interview footage and lazy narration, and the whimper of an ending leaves the audience with a shoulder-shrug experience and ambivalence towards its central figure. I’m not entirely sure why David Yates, a director who spent the last couple of decades in the Harry Potter universe and family entertainment, took on this film. Still, I wonder if someone with a grittier vision could have created something more resonant and urgent.
Overall, Pain Hustlers is a benign look at a recently well-covered subject. Though the lead performances from Blunt and Evans are solid, it’s the film’s uneven tone, lack of tension, and punchless final moments that bring down any successes in acting & content.
Watch Pain Hustlers If You Liked
- Netflix’s Painkiller
- All The Beauty and the Bloodshed
- The Crime of the Century
MVP of Netflix’s Pain Hustlers
Emily Blunt as Liza Drake
While the film doesn’t deserve Emily Blunt, I’m sure glad she’s here.
Blunt’s performance – and a decent attempt at an accent – tries so hard to give the emotional pulse that this movie desperately needed. Her efforts are most felt in her one one-on-one scenes, including her more explosive “I did this” speech opposite her mother (Catherine O’Hara) and her repulsion of Dr. Neel after she attempts to borrow money for her daughter’s surgery. We need more lead performances from Blunt soon.
A star-studded yet underwhelming examination on how to create an opioid epidemic. Blunt, Evans, Garcia, & O’Hara can’t elevate this over its predecessors.