Pain Hustlers, 2023.
Directed by David Yates.
Starring Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O’Hara, Jay Duplass, Andy García, Brian d’Arcy James, Chloe Coleman, Amit Shah, Britt Rentschler, Nick J. McNeil, Michael Kosta, Selena Anduze, Erin Ownbey, Sharon Conley, Valerie LeBlanc, Alexis Baca, Michael Lowry, Greyson Chadwick, Alex Klein, Chinet Scott, Neil Kelly, Samantha Kacho, Andrea Laing, Adrian Eppley, Hillary Harley, Willie Raysor, Quinn Bozza, Omer Mughal, Chris Marks, Bella Winkowski, A.K. Benninghofen, Dustin Lewis, Donna Duplantier, David Kronawitter, and Abigail Susan Williams.
Liza dreams of a better life for herself and her daughter. She gets a job at a bankrupt pharmacy, and Liza’s guts catapult the company and her into the high life, putting her in the middle of a criminal conspiracy.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Pain Hustlers wouldn’t exist.
Easily one of the most bizarre stories about the opioid crisis, director David Yates’ Pain Hustlers operates as a pharmaceutical industry tale of greed that wants to depict how callous and heartless humanity is when the money is flowing in. It also softens itself with a morally conscious heart-of-gold protagonist in Emily Blunt’s Liza Drake, a single working mom who trades stripping for an entry position trying to sell doctors on a groundbreaking medication for treating cancer pain that legitimately is a better choice than the addictive one currently on the market that takes 45 minutes of consumption before any effects kick in.
Liza stumbles upon this opportunity inside the strip club, meeting Chris Evans’ Pete Brenner. He instantly picks up on her street smarts, feels seen through her knowledge, and promises her financial turnaround if she takes a chance to join their company, regardless of her prior education credentials. Desperately trying to make ends meet for her rebellious, suspended-from-school daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman), who has started having seizures and could require major, expensive brain surgery, not to mention getting kicked out of her sister’s house, Liza realizes that there is nothing to lose and take him up on the offer. She also discovers that while these doctors are loyal to whoever is lining their pockets, even if the medication is sketchy and harmful, they are lonely and horny, easily manipulated, and quick to fall for a grift. As such, she lands the first prescriber and gets the drug to a small handful of cancer patients.
From there, Pain Hustlers follows the rise of this pharmaceutical company, where everyone, including an increasingly loony boss played by Andy Garcia, can only think about raising profits, even when they have already swallowed up the market share for cancer pain treatment medication. This means they begin encouraging doctors to sell the medication for noncancer-related illnesses, which Liza understandably finds challenging to support. She is not in this for greed but rather respect, considering her sister and mother (Catherine O’Hara) haven’t always thought highly of her.
Working alongside screenwriter Wells Tower and based on the book by Evan Hughes, David Yates has also incorporated a mockumentary framing device featuring copious amounts of duration from Liza, most of which Emily Blunt sounds bored delivering. To be fair, her actual performance, including the ensemble, is committed and solid, even if the material lets them down.
The more significant issue is that, even though a true story supposedly inspires this, it constantly allows the filmmakers to have a traditional protagonist to cheer for, when that’s probably not what this film requires to make a statement. It too often feels like it wants to be about the one good person in this corrupt industry rather than how corrupt and morally bankrupt the American healthcare industry is. By the second or third time Emily Blunt’s voiceover kicks in, clutching her pearls about how wrong everything here is, it comes across as phony and annoying rather than sincere concerns.
That’s without even getting into the structural narrative issues, which sees Liza juggling her corporate ladder rise, becoming a hotshot able to freely spend money on a new home and car (probably something she should have held off on until knowing for sure if her daughter would not need brain surgery), deal with the shady expanding of the drug, her mom brought on to work for the company and falling into a fling with the boss, her daughter’s health, and repeatedly being hit on by Peter. The result is a scattershot film that replaces awkward family drama for delving into shameless corporate antics and greed. Pain Hustlers badly wants what The Wolf of Wall Street has but has no spine or bite to get there.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com