A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2023


2023, R, 122 mins.

Emily Blunt as Liza Drake  /  Chris Evans as Pete Brenner  /  Catherine O'Hara as Jackie  /  Andy García as Jack Neel  /  Brian d'Arcy James as James  /  Chloe Coleman as Phoebe  /  Britt Rentschler as Camille Trask  /  Selena Anduze as Kate Elliston

Directed by David Yates  /  Written by Wells Tower, based on the book by Evan Hughes




The new Netflix American crime drama PAIN HUSTLERS - based on the fact-based book of the same name by Evan Hughes - chronicles the massive rise and spectacular fall of a pharmaceutical company that went to great - and highly illegal - lengths to pedal a fentanyl-based liquid spray to the masses.  The film certainly tells a highly worthwhile story that's not only ripped from the headlines, but has legitimate things that it wants to say about the corruption of companies like this that try to profit off of the pain and misery (and sometimes life and death struggles) of sick people.  

Pretty timely material, if you ask me.    

In many respects, this is also a cautionary tale about the limitless sins of capitalism and the immoral business practices of drug companies.  PAIN HUSTLERS starts with relative promise as a true story opioid crisis expose, but it kind of derails in its latter half, not to mention that it desperately tries to place nice with one of its characters, which rang false to me.  That, director David Yates is a bit out of his element here in trying to stylistically clone THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but with a final product that has infinitely less raw nerve and creative ambition.  There are a lot of tricks that he throws at the screen and hopes will stick (faux documentary interviews with the main players, frantic montages, and a whole lot of scenes of hedonistic excess by those that are greedily preying on the weak).  PAIN HUSTLERS feels so Scorsese-lite throughout much of its running time that you're left wondering what kind of infinitely better film could have resulted with him behind the camera instead of Yates.  The British filmmaker is good at acclimating to the committee-led blockbuster parameters of the many HARRY POTTER films that he has helmed, but he seems ill at ease with fully harnessing PAIN HUSTLERS' absurd gonzo debauchery.

The one element shining through the wobbly cracks here is definitely star Emily Blunt, who's really good in a rather problematic role on the page (more on that in a bit).  She plays Liza, who in 2011 is a down on her luck and quickly going nowhere single mother to her sickly daughter, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman), who suffers from recurring seizures (since she barely makes ends meet as a local stripper and with medical procedures required to make her daughter better not being covered by insurance, Liza is getting desperate).  She has a very chance meeting one night at her club with Pete (a joyously slimy Chris Evans), who's a pharmaceutical rep who's initially compelled by her no-nonsense drive and plain-spoken skills at handling people.  Pete works for a relatively floundering startup company founded and run by Jack Neel (a well cast Andy Garcia) that tries to sell fentanyl-based Lonafen, which they go out of their way to claim (with dubious data to back it up) is not addictive or habit forming and works better than anything else as a pain reliever for cancer victims.  There's a highly competitive market when it comes to other higher-ranking and respectable pharmaceutical companies out there that nab big game doctor clients to prescribe their product, leaving guys like Pete and his employer trying to crawl their way to the top.  



Pete decides to take pity on the struggling Liza and offers her a job as a commission drug rep (he even goes out of his way to fudge her resume to overlook the fact that she's a high school dropout with no college education or relatable experience or skills in the industry).  She gets her foot in the door, but the company in question - Zanna Therapeutics - is close to bankruptcy, which means that Liza will have to prove her worth and fast.  Her first days on the job are a grueling challenge, but she hits massive pay dirt when she gets her first sale with a nearly impossible to close small-time doctor (Brian d'Arcy James), who agrees to start prescribing Lonafen in exchange for money and other, shall we say, perks.  Within no time, orders start massively increasing for the drug, which starts to put Liza on the upper echelon ladder of salespeople, impressing both Jeff and Jack in equal measure.  She goes on to achieve massive success and limitless wealth in her position and starts to climb the corporate ladder of Zanna with Jeff...that is until their business bubble suddenly bursts when attention is drawn to the law about their ultra-shady sales tactics.  

I said earlier that Blunt is the one aspect of PAIN HUSTLERS worth writing home about.  I'll slightly course correct that statement to also include her co-star in Evans, who's having a field day here playing an unmitigated corporate scumbag.  So many fondly remember his memorable turn as his square jawed and ethically unwavering Captain America in the MCU films, but seeing him trying to shed that nice guy hero image in films like this (and, to other varying degrees, in KNIVES OUT and THE GRAY MAN) is kind of a sinful pleasure (to his credit, Evans is a rare double threat when it comes to smoothly and believably inhabiting both noble minded good guys and unwholesome jerks).  Blunt, as already mentioned, is reliably stalwart in the film too, even when given the most maudlin material.  Some of the best scenes in PAIN HUSTLERS occur when the initially in-over-her-head Liza has to think on her feet and go off her prescribed sales pitch script to convince her client targets of taking a chance with her and Zanna and later reap the rewards.  Liza, to be fair, is a convincing hustler, mostly because she comes off as sincere to her customers.    

The main issue, though, that I took with this character's handling in Wells Towers' screenplay is that he goes completely out of his way to play things frustratingly soft and safe with Liza, who has been given a brain sick daughter to drum up maximum audience sympathy and, in turn, is infused with a relatively good heart.  She grows to learn of the dangers of her company and their drug really, really late in the story and well after she has become filthy rich in the process.  I just didn't buy this angle to the character at all.  She's written as a do-gooder with some semblance of a moral backbone who's also trying to make money from whoever she can to help support herself and her daughter (she needs expensive medical support because of her condition).  Liza and Phoebe are evicted from their home in the early stages, which are followed by scenes of the latter trying to make it through debilitating and painful seizure episodes.  PAIN HUSTLERS - ahem! - pains itself to make us like and understand why Liza does what she does later with Zanna, but the film utterly sidesteps the fact that, yes, she willfully becomes a part of an extremely dicey business that ended up getting far too many people hooked on this drug that soon got prescribed for many wrong reasons by profit hungry doctors.  Liza seems to think that she's genuinely helping sick people here, maybe because of her own daughter's suffering.  When she learns about Lonafen's dangerous side effects, she back pedals and soon realizes the errors of her way...and well after she moves out of her dingy motel home and into a lavish penthouse condo.  Lisa's maturing conscience seems more manufactured than truly believable, and I found it quite hard to sympathize with her.  

PAIN HUSTLERS is also all over the proverbial map when it comes to how it portrays this thoroughly unsavory business model.  It's like if THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, ERIN BROCKOVICH and THE BIG SHORT had a three-way and produced a baby and you kind of get the idea.  There's a frequent visual motif of a black and white shot documentary infused in and out of the main story that's kind of distracting and could have been excised.  On top of that, Yates unleashes obligatory scenes of rampant partying, uninhibited drug and alcohol use, money being thrown around like it's growing on trees, and so forth by the very people (Liza included) who are making it rain off of poor people that are addicted to their drug.  None of this ever seems edgy or raw enough when it comes to portraying this world of ravenous greed and the worst underbelly of capitalism run fully amok.  PAIN HUSTLERS seems like a softer kind of poser film compared to the others mentioned, leading to a general lack of grit when it comes to the reprehensible lengths that these sales reps go to.  I can't say that I wasn't gripped in the early stages of this film and the very game performances by Blunt and Evans do help elevate the proceedings.  But as an inspired by true events tale of one woman's uphill battle for self-preservation that's juxtaposed with how she becomes psychologically detached while working in an industry that ultimately hurts so many, PAIN HUSTLERS has very few things to add to the larger conversation that other far better similar films before it have already tackled.  

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