When Pain Hustlers begins with a phony set, a black-and-white filter, and Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) telling a fake documentary crew about how his relationship with Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) started, it’s quickly apparent that this is a Netflix movie of the week.
Pain Hustlers is a mediocre and derivative account of one company’s contribution to the opioid epidemic. If you’re reading this thinking, “Didn’t Netflix just release a series about this called Painkiller in August?” Yes, they did. However, it won’t stop them from doing it again with a cheap and somewhat exploitative movie. Painkiller, a show that depicts the United States’ opioid crisis through the perspectives of Big Pharma, the victims, and the people who brought them down, is already a ripoff of Hulu’s brilliant series, Dopesick, from 2021. The idea that Netflix not only stole from another streamer but then itself two months later is scarily indicative of how little current Hollywood executives value good storytelling.
Directed by David Yates, the man behind the later Harry Potter films and disastrous Fantastic Beasts franchise, Pain Hustlers is told solely from the pharmaceutical industry’s perspective. This would have been interesting had Yates depicted the characters as the cash-hungry villains they are instead of relatable, which is an odd choice knowing that the film’s protagonist, Liza Drake, isn’t real. Liza is a single mom in Florida struggling to land on her feet. She lives in her sister’s garage with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) and her daughter, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman).
To make matters worse, Phoebe suffers from seizures and eventually needs a life-saving but extremely costly medical operation. With this, the film goes to extreme lengths to make Liza a sympathetic lead, and the emotional beats feel manufactured as a result. When Brenner stumbles across Liza dancing at a strip club, he offers her a job as a fellow salesman at the pharmaceutical company he works for, Zanna, a fictional version of Insys Therapeutics. Upon learning that the company, which sells fentanyl spray for cancer patients, is about to go under, Liza pulls together whatever strength she can to sell the drug, make money, and get the life she always dreamed she’d have.
Throughout the film, Liza, Brenner, and other Zanna sales reps throw lavish parties for doctors and give them expensive gifts to bribe them into prescribing their ‘wonder drug.’ Once it becomes popular and financial growth plateaus, Dr. Jack Neel, the CEO of Zanna, pushes his sales rep to get doctors to prescribe the opioid-filled medication for low-to-moderate pain, which is how the epidemic spread across the country.
Yates directs Pain Hustlers similarly to The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, and that’s a hurdle he never overcomes. The film treats the opioid crisis with a light tone for so much of the movie that, eventually, when it tries to apply real-life stakes, it never rings true. If Yates wanted to tell it from the perspective of those responsible for starting the epidemic, he needed to fully embrace their complete disregard for those they killed for profit. However, the onus isn’t totally on Yates as this also lies heavily in the writing, but it cements the idea that Yates is only ever as good as the script he’s working with.
Blunt mostly rises above the lacklustre material, and Chris Evans continues his post-MCU hot streak of lacklustre projects. It’s a shame because he’s marvellous as Captain America. Unfortunately, even their charm and Evans’ Boston accent aren’t enough to carry this movie for longer than ten minutes.
By the time Pain Hustlers is over, it’s painfully obvious that Netflix just needed something to release one weekend in October. Even if this project has been in development for a while, at the time of Dopesick’s release, Yates should have thrown in the towel as Jennifer Lawerence did with her Elizabeth Holmes movie after The Dropout. Ultimately, Pain Hustlers isn’t the worst movie ever made, but is simply one that never bothers to justify its existence. Isn’t that worse?