Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, and Emily Blunt in "Pain Hustlers"
As has been proven time and time again, a star-studded cast is not enough to save a film. David Yates’s “Pain Hustlers,” a glitzy ‘rise and fall’ crime drama about pharmaceutical representatives at the center of the opioid crisis, adds to the toppling list of wasted talent. Such actors as Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, and Canadian queen Catherine O’Hara have seen far better material than a dully told scheming tale of greed. Based on the Evan Hughes-penned 2022 book “The Hard Sell,” the film tells the story of a gutsy dancer-turned-sales rep whose quick wit gives rise to a failing pharmacy. The greater the company’s successes, the further they fall down the rabbit hole of criminal activity. Misleadingly flashy editing and energetic choices of music are a stark contrast to the uninspired screenplay that lays flat at the core. While “Pain Hustlers” features charismatic work by the always-great Emily Blunt, her admirable commitment becomes lost in generic storytelling. The film struggles to engage with its compelling subject matter beyond a surface level.
“Pain Hustlers” retells the true story of American pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics, which brought the fentanyl product Subsys to market. The company had a direct influence on the U.S. opioid crisis that emerged in the 1990s. In Yates’s glossy film version, the fictional company is called Zanna Therapeutics and it is run by Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia), who pushes the Lonafen (fentanyl) drug initially onto cancer patients as a fast-tracked form of pain relief. Zanna is in need of an economic turnaround. Company executive Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a gaudy personality in perpetual recruitment mode, visits a strip club in Miami, where he meets the film’s protagonist Liza Drake (Emily Blunt). Liza is a single mother who takes the odd job to make ends meet, and dreams to have a better life for her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). Working as a dancer at the strip club, Liza receives the so-called opportunity of a lifetime from Pete: a position at Zanna that will skyrocket her bank account. After some thought, she claims Pete’s offer and pleads with him to give her a chance. Pete overhauls her under-qualified resume, and just like that, Zanna has a new cog in its scheming machine.
As expected, given the film’s source material, the central conflict of “Pain Hustlers” involves the compromise of morals in exchange for personal and financial gain. Driven by the interests of Zanna, Liza joins in on the Lonafen push. The plan involves visiting various pharmacies and buying off unsuspecting doctors to prescribe the drug to their patients. The targeted patient group begins with people who are undergoing treatments for late-stage cancer. But as Liza’s successful bribing techniques lead to a rapid rise in prescriptions for the company, that target widens dangerously to all patients. The casting of Blunt as Liza is the film’s primary saving grace. She expertly charts the character’s desperation, hunger, and complicity in the grey areas of morality. Though committed as Blunt is, the middling screenplay and generic direction fall short of her talent.
The major underbelly of “Pain Hustlers” is corporate desperation and greed at the expense of people’s lives. From the 1990s onwards, the opioid epidemic in the United States has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths across the country, not to mention forever-changed families. The over-prescription of opioids and its devastating aftermath has been the subject of many narratives as of late. From the Oscar-nominated documentary “All The Beauty and The Bloodshed,” to the Emmy-winning Hulu series “Dopesick.” “Pain Hustlers” exists in a very different arena in terms of its approach. The screenplay by Wells Tower, based on the Hughes book, lacks the proper nuance to balance an exploration of the opioid subject with the film’s desired comedic tone.
In trying to be as pleasing and amusing as possible, “Pain Hustlers” is a dull chore to get on board with until the very end. Not helping matters is Yates’s direction, which breezes through the story and tumbles into the trappings of a glossy ‘rise and fall’ narrative. One particular scene, involving Liza as she appears in a courtroom, arrives at the expected point in the story where accountability takes its toll. However, despite Blunt’s strong screen presence, the scene’s desired emotional impact falls flat. The lack of insightful characterization not only for Liza, but for characters across the board, makes it all the more difficult to feel invested in the story. The cast of “Pain Hustlers” is painfully underused and mostly misguided. Evans and Garcia both veer into one-note territory, though neither make enough impact in the first place to stand out as anything more than serviceable. The saddest of all is Catherine O’Hara’s underused talent. One of the most uniquely gifted comediennes of all time, there was a missed opportunity in utilizing her role to more comedic effect.
Reminiscent of the ‘rise and fall’ crime story structure – one that begins on a reckless high until the wrath of consequences catch up – “Pain Hustlers” still manages to lack the entertainment value of a tried-and-true formula. The film also misses an opportunity to explore its characters in further detail, as well as find something recognizably concrete to say in a familiar genre of storytelling. The overall production value may be showy, but the polish quickly fades to reveal a consistently dull experience. While led by a wonderful Emily Blunt, whose charismatic work establishes a connection to the viewer, the screenplay does not reach her (nor her co-stars’) capabilities. Given the scope of the film’s subject matter and the talent involved, “Pain Hustlers” is an unexpected chore.