Although it doesn’t always pay off in ways one hopes, the darkly comedic Pain Hustlers pairs a tried and true formula to a specific, real life horror that hasn’t been explored in such a way to date. While there have been plenty of films from the likes of Boiler Room to The Wolf of Wall Street that take a bleakly funny look at people trying to get rich quick, and almost just as many films and series in recent years that deal with the abuse of prescription drugs (Dopesick, Painkiller), Pain Hustlers is the only film I can think of that marries both of those settings together. Boosted by the efforts of a top notch cast and some clever plotting, Pain Hustlers continually walks a fine line between good taste and bad, but thankfully it comes out mostly ahead in the end.
Loosely inspired by real events and based in part on the writings of Evan Hughes, Pain Hustlers examines the rise and fall of a big pharma company from the perspective of an outsider who muscled their way into the business. Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) was a single mother trying to navigate a messy, costly divorce and working as a dancer in a Florida gentleman’s club when she had a chance encounter with Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a foul mouthed, slick talking salesman trying to get doctors and pharmacists to take a chance on a revolutionary, proven, but underused form of fentanyl for the purposes of stopping breakthrough cancer pain. Desperate to ply her gifts of gab and salesmanship elsewhere, Liza aggressively goes after a job she’s patently unqualified for, and with the help of Pete fudging her resume, she goes immediately to work. Together, they take the drug to previously unforeseen heights, and outside of a couple of fudged, ethically hazy events designed to woo potential drug providers, most of their efforts are on the level. But greed starts to get in the way when the company starts pushing for bigger profits by asking doctors to begin prescribing the medication for pain relief outside of its approved usage, forcing Liza to reconsider her place in the empire she helped shape.
Director David Yates – who oversaw seven films in the extended Harry Potter theatrical universe and The Legend of Tarzan – seems like an interesting choice for such material, but not that strange when one notices that Pain Hustlers is taking cues from his extensive background in British television (including the original, outstanding State of Play and The Way We Live Now) than his more recent output. The first script from screenwriter Wells Tower follows a well established and proven track – things are a wild, successful, and fun ride until consequences and greed catch up to everyone – and Yates moves this rise and fall narrative along at a brisk pace. That pace sometimes renders the overall timeline of events implausible, but never at the expense of greater issues. Yates also imbues Pain Hustlers with a surprising amount of style, including a number of unexpectedly effective handheld tracking shots that add a nice touch of immediacy to some of the film’s more dramatic beats.
Yates also finds well cast collaborators in Blunt and Evans, both of whom are capable of walking the razors edge between their character’s cartoonier personality traits and the underlying sadness that motivates them. Blunt’s comedic and dramatic chops are on full display as a smart, motivated huckster with a preternatural gift for spin and banter. Whether Liza is trying to land a “whale” of a client (here exemplified nicely by Brian d’Arcy James’ sad-sack pain clinic operator) or spending more tender moments with her epileptic teenage daughter (Chloe Coleman), Blunt can perfectly calibrate her performance to precisely what Yates needs. For his role as Liza’s closest partner in crime (literally and figuratively), Evans once again gets a chance to play a charismatic sleaze-bag capable of charming and repelling the viewer at the same time. Their chemistry is the fulcrum on which Pain Hustlers rises and falls.
But despite the best efforts of the cast (including Catherine O’Hara, who has a memorable supporting turn as Liza’s flighty mother), Pain Hustlers doesn’t hit the mark as much as it probably wants to. The idea of building what’s ostensibly a comedy around a subject that has brought pain and suffering to millions of people around the world under the pretence of alleviating such conditions is a dicey one in the best of hands, and the script isn’t always up to snuff. Pain Hustlers isn’t glorifying its subjects, but the humour in the first half of the film isn’t exactly holding them to account, making the second half’s pivot into sadder, more serious territory hard to swallow.
When success starts corrupting the players involved, the plot escalates exponentially on a dime, causing a fair bit of narrative whiplash that leaves some of the performers around the periphery adrift, most notably Garcia, who goes from noble to insane almost immediately and without warning. Pain Hustlers also boasts an ill advised wrap around and selection of faux-documentary interstitials where the characters are giving interviews, which are supposed to be adding context, but can be excised from the film entirely in favour of the voiceover or some other less clunky narrative device. The more recent output of filmmaker Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short, Don’t Look Up) is clearly an influence, but Yates and Hughes don’t seem to realize they they’ve also ported a lot of the same shortcomings that similarly plague his films.
But in spite of a number of faults, Pain Hustlers retains a sense of timeliness and relevancy, even as things start to go off the rails. The discussion of “off label” prescriptions and how doctors and salespeople can be enticed by the riches that go along with them is an important one to have, especially in the case of something as widely abused and prevalent as fentanyl, an important and effective drug that has been dragged through the mud by those looking for profits. Yates and his cast aren’t speaking down to any of the difficult experiences that go hand in hand with this subject by imbuing their take on events with some dark humour. If anything, that cynical and playful streak sets Pain Hustlers apart from a standard drama that’s just going through the same hollow, manipulative motions.
Pain Hustlers streams on Netflix starting Friday, October 27, 2023.
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