TORONTO, Canada—As a wise man once said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Such is the unfortunate fate of Pain Hustlers, a splashy opioid epidemic drama that, arriving after Alex Gibney’s The Crime of the Century, Danny Strong’s Dopesick, and Peter Berg’s Painkiller, comes across as a redundant rehash. Emily Blunt and Chris Evans lend A-list star power to David Yates’ Netflix feature (premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival), but in a streaming landscape already saturated with takedowns of Big Pharma and its pill-popping perfidy, it’s a generic version of far more powerful originals.
Based on Evan Hughes’ book of the same name, Pain Hustlers fictionalizes the saga of Insys Therapeutics, who produced and sold a fast-acting fentanyl spray dubbed Subsys that was approved to treat cancer patients’ extreme pain. In Yates and screenwriter Wells Tower’s retelling, that corrupt firm is Zanna Therapeutics and their wonder drug is Lonafen, developed by billionaire Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) in the wake of the agonizing death of his wife (whom the company is named after).
Zanna is a low-rent South Florida outfit with almost no market share, putting everyone—including wannabe COO Pete Brenner (Evans)—in dire straits. All that changes, however, when Pete visits a local strip club and meets Liza Drake (Blunt), a dancer with a preternatural gift for reading people and convincing them to do her bidding. By the end of the night, Pete offers her a job.
This stroke of luck couldn’t come at a better time for Liza, whose adolescent daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) has just been suspended from school for igniting a forest fire with illegal fireworks, and whose sister wants them both to clean up their act and move out of her garage. Desperate, Liza takes Pete up on his proposal, and her sales background and go-getter attitude so impress him that he falsifies her resumé and introduces her to Dr. Jack, who’s charmed and quickly puts her on the payroll, much to the chagrin of Pete’s office rival Brent (Jay Duplass).
Liza is given one week to “invent a doctor,” by which Pete means convince a shady physician to write a single Lonafen prescription and, in doing so, get him on their proverbial team. That’s harder than it seems, although thanks to a last-second meeting with a pain management physician (Brian d’Arcy James)—known as “The $9 Million Man” because of his unscrupulous work with other pharma outfits—Liza accomplishes her mission and sets herself and Zanna on a course to the stratosphere.
From living in a run-down motel and eating ramen to setting up shop in a swanky modern penthouse thanks to giant commission checks, Liza achieves her dreams, in the process bringing along her mom (Catherine O’Hara) by hiring her as one of her loyal sales reps. Every element of this journey, alas, has been seen before in the aforementioned TV series, and the fact that Yates often channels The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short doesn’t help the film carve out its own identity.
Worse, Tower’s script pulls its punches by turning Liza into a sympathetic villain who did wrong but for the right reasons (at least initially) and despite her better judgment. In need of cash in order to pay for Phoebe’s seizure-inducing brain tumor (a contrived narrative device if there ever was one), Liza compromises her morals for a noble cause.
She does this by heeding Pete’s advice and using “speaker programs” (i.e., seminar events) to unsubtly bribe doctors with cash, vacations, women, and party drugs so that they’ll write scripts for their medications. Liza knows that this is shady but Pain Hustlers routinely notes that she believes Lonafen is a legitimate and vital (and non-addictive) remedy for millions, and, consequently, the ends justify the means.
It’s a transparent attempt to provide audiences with an essentially good-hearted protagonist for whom they can root—one who’ll weep over the deaths she’s directly or inadvertently caused, and do whatever it takes to accept responsibility and her punishment. No matter Blunt’s vivaciousness (especially during her wheeling-and-dealing rise to the top), this drug-rep-with-a-heart-of-gold characterization rings phony.
Yates intermittently cuts to black-and-white faux-documentary interview clips with his main characters and a handful of genuine opioid victims (à la Painkiller) in a vain effort to amplify the proceedings’ realism. Pain Hustlers, though, is a shallow cover song full of second-hand flash and sizzle, more concerned with depicting Dr. Jack’s rising OCD mania—which begins with Purell and climaxes with tantrums about dirty shoes and security guards confiscating cell phones and bags—than with detailing the ins and outs of the company’s crooked operation.
Moreover, relative to Purdue Pharma, Zanna’s chief crime appears to be relatively minor: In the end, they’re just busted for paying docs to peddle their wares over the competition. That practice is unquestionably unethical, and yet it’s dwarfed by the larger issue of whether Lonafen and its progeny (like OxyContin) were more addictive, and deadly, than advertised—a notion the film only fleetingly addresses.
Pain Hustlers is a dramatization that reduces rather than expands, affording fewer insights than numerous likeminded exposés. Evans affects an unidentifiable accent and a matching vaguely amoral attitude as the ambitious Pete, while Garcia behaves kookily as a titan who’s revealed to have no qualms about breaking the law and laying waste to the sick and the suffering so long as it earns him more money. Everyone is a two-dimensional caricature executing a familiar get-rich-quick scheme, and Yates finds insufficient ways to enliven the material; his freeze frames, snappy pacing and non-fiction pantomimes are simply stock devices put to perfunctory and tiresome use.
The director refuses to truly go for the jugular with Pain Hustlers, sanding the edges off his capitalism-run-amok critique in order to make his tale more palatable. Courting the mainstream by shining some inspiring light amidst the darkness is a standard Hollywood strategy, and in this case, that comes via a conclusion that manages to slap Liza on the wrist and then grant her rah-rah redemption for her past misdeeds. In doing so, the film is disingenuous enough to make itself borderline irrelevant.
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