David Yates’ Pain Hustlers isn’t exactly a bad movie — it’s just aggressively mediocre. It’s a surprising thing to discover given the talent on screen. The narrative is centred around Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), and the part she played in the whole opioid crisis. The film is based off a real pharmaceutical company, but Liza is a fictional character. When we first meet her, she’s at her lowest of lows. She’s working at a strip club, but it’s clear that she’s not very good at it. She stands awkwardly on stage before chatting up Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a pharmaceutical rep who works at Zanna, a company trying to get into the cancer pain circuit.
They’ve created an opioid which is basically identical to Fentanyl, the only difference is the apparent less than 1% addiction rate. Despite this, doctors aren’t keen to switch, and the company’s in the red. Of course Liza comes in and saves the day, managing to get a doctor to prescribe the medicine they’re selling. She discovers something she’s good at, and in the process helps Zanna reach dizzying heights in the pharmaceutical game. The thing is, she and Pete aren’t exactly playing by the rules — they call it going at 67 when there’s a 65 speed limit. However, colouring outside the lines has major consequences when real people are involved.
Pain Hustlers is trying to be the pharmaceutical version of The Wolf of Wall Street, but that irreverent style doesn’t work when there’s so much tragedy at the centre of it all. While Jordan Belfort is the protagonist in The Wolf of Wall Street, the film makes it clear that it’s just as much about the amoral system he’s part of, and we’re never in danger of sympathizing with him. By framing Liza’s story as a rags to riches story, the film wants us to relate to Liza and empathize with her, which is a strange decision given the morally bankrupt choices she makes over the course of the film.
Liza is saddled with a sabotaging ex-husband, her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) is struggling with a medical condition, and her mother Jackie (Catherine O’Hara) is pretty self-centred. Clearly life’s dealt her a bad hand, so we can understand why she gets into the pharmaceutical game. But she seems pretty oblivious to the reality behind her decisions. What makes it, ironically, even worse is that Blunt is so emotionally present that it’s hard not to root for her. We’re actually cheering for her when Liza and Pete gang up to get rid of someone in the company who’s actually making moral sense. There’s just no possible redemption arc for a character like that, and yet the film ardently tries, pointing the finger at the men at the centre of the company and painting Liza as a victim that fell for their schemes.
Evans does well as the sleazy salesman Pete, as he makes it clear that nothing matters to him outside the money that they make. He drops a bunch of smarmy one-liners, like “You sell what’s in the bag” and “You eat what you kill”. Then there’s Andy Garcia, in a role that requires him to be certifiably mad. There’s no understanding of his character, he’s just this big-bad-hyper-focused-on-profits-boss-man, with no clarity as to how he got that way, especially since it was his late wife’s struggle with cancer pain that got him into the business in the first place.
So when we get to the part of the film when Liza’s trying to scrounge up money for her daughter’s surgery while she’s sitting in her big, fancy apartment, it’s hard to feel sorry for her the way the film obviously wants us to.
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In a bizarre narrative choice, it is the pharmaceutical rep with a heart of gold that gets to be the centre of a film about the opioid crisis, while the very real people who lost their life because of addiction seem like an afterthought.
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