[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation as part of its coverage of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.]
There is a good movie buried in Pain Hustlers, maybe even two.
The first is a pitch-black comedy about the depraved world of pain management drugs, packed to the edges with unchecked greed and vanity. That film features broken people willing and able to debase themselves and others at the breathless promise of unbelievable wealth. It also looks at how those people form and break genuine connections within the ethical and criminal maelstrom.
The second film is a sobering examination of the opioid epidemic, spotlighting the victims of the pharmaceutical world’s callous disregard for their lives and forcing the perpetrators to grapple with their actions. Both ideas could reasonably exist in one film, but it requires deeply considered direction, writing, and acting to be successful.
Pain Hustlers is neither of those movies.
It is the story of Zanna Pharmaceuticals, a fledging Massachusetts drug maker that becomes an industry titan with the most successful cancer pain medicine on the market. Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a poor single mother recruited by Zanna rep Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) in a strip club one night, is at the center of its success. She knows nothing about biology or pharmaceuticals, but Pete doesn’t care, and neither does she. What Liza does have is a keen eye for people’s behavior. She pairs those instincts with Pete’s sketchy, illegal marketing tactics to push their drug into local doctors’ offices nationwide. They amass extraordinary wealth, but their scams and the guilt of ruining and ending lives eventually catch them in a spectacular fall.
Director David Yates makes the fatally unsatisfying mistake of splitting the difference between two vastly incompatible tones. He fashions Pain Hustlers as a post-collapse documentary, with the principal players recounting their experiences and hashing out their lingering grievances, regrets, and pains. The framing device lends itself well to snarky satires, and you see the intent as Pete prattles on about company politics in a voiceover during a sales pitch meeting. However, it’s only marginally effective for petty exposition and easy-laugh one-liners. (The script’s flat humor doesn’t help.) The device is worse at servicing moments of emotional weight, especially when the film briefly focuses on Zanna patients. The scenes read as insincere on their own, but when juxtaposed with the disaffected bantering, they feel insincere and manipulative.
The ick of unhinged chaotic humor and sobering drama uneasily co-existing is pervasive. Yates regularly volleys between interpersonal drama and smarmy hijinks with limited regard for tonal cohesion. The film feels disjointed as he struggles to flow from scenes of Liza’s relationship with her daughter to her work for Zanna. That whiplash also impact scenes themselves, like Brenner’s drunken disclosure to Liza that his foster father once tried molesting him. Yates finds some comfort within the sleazy spaces he wants the film to live in. He borrows heavily from The Wolf of Wall Street for his rowdy partying scenes and achieves a decent imitation that gives the film much-needed energy and urgency. He also gets mileage from focusing on Liza’s ascent into a lord overseeing her growing network of unqualified sales representatives. Unfortunately, Yates doesn’t commit to the recklessness and the film is left hollow as a result.
Also hamstringing Pain Hustlers is its characters’ lack of identity. The script rarely digs deeper than tropes about who the Zanna employees might be rather than specific defining traits. Liza waffles between ruthless ambition and tentative complicity, and it isn’t always clear how weak her moral compass is. While she has at least her daughter as her motivation, Pete is profoundly underwritten. He seems to exist solely as a machine of smarm and moral bankruptcy without a specific reason. Even when he is somewhat fun to watch, connecting with him beyond the superficial is difficult.
It’s a shame because Pete and Liza’s dynamic could’ve been fertile ground for the film. In one standout scene, Pete gifts Liza a gold bracelet after she lands the deal that will change Zanna forever. Pete tries to play off the gesture, but Liza seems truly moved. That gift represents one of the first times someone actually respected her. Emily Blunt and Chris Evans convey a quiet tenderness through their shared fleeting looks at each other. The moment suggests Pete and Liza will form a real connection within the ethical and criminal muck. The film loses that thread, and the opportunity to say something meaningful about greed’s toxifying impact on everyone, even those who materially benefit. That would’ve been more insightful than Liza’s sudden concern for the plight of those whose pain she cynically exploited.
The script’s lack of depth leaves its cast without much to craft compelling performances. Catherine O’Hara, who plays Liza’s mother, escapes unscathed because her comedic skill is unimpeachable, and she can easily pull from her Schitt’s Creek character to fill in the gaps. Emily Blunt tries to elevate the material by adding shades of desperation, vulnerability, and calculation to Liza’s actions. Chris Evans sits in the middle, leaning on recent villainous turns in Knives Out and The Gray Man to compensate for the lack of character. (The script also gives him the single most embarrassing moment of his career.) All three actors have glimmers of strength in their performances, but Yates limits the runaway and hobbles them.
There are compelling stories about the opioid crisis and ways to tell them. Sadly, Pain Hustlers lacks the conviction to assume the associated risks. Instead, Yates settles for a muddled effort that isn’t clear on what it wants to be or say. Ironically, the film would’ve benefitted from Liza and Pete’s reckless and craven abandon. They may have been terrible people, but at least they had something of a point of view. Without the hustle, all that’s left of this film is the pain of seeing where it could’ve gone. Don’t worry; the pain won’t last, and neither will Pain Hustlers.
Pain Hustlers releases on Netflix worldwide on October 27th.