Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) knows she is meant for great things in Pain Hustlers. She feels it deep inside. Sometimes life deals a bad hand, but she keeps reminding herself to not give up on her dreams. Liza is working as a stripper to try and make ends meet while living in her sister’s garage turned studio apartment. To make matters worse, her mom Jackie (Catherine O’Hara) is also there coming up with her next get rich quick scheme. By happenstance, Liza crosses paths with Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) at her club. A drunken Pete presents her with a golden ticket, promising wealth Liza can’t even fathom. Pete works for a pharmaceutical company, and all the money is in Big Pharma. When Liza’s daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) starts showing signs of a serious medical condition, Liza seizes the opportunity.
Visiting Zanna Pharmaceuticals, Liza sees that Pete is actually working for a failing company. Dr. Neel (Andy Garcia) has invented a new drug, Lonafen, to diminish his now deceased wife’s cancer pain. Lonafen has a sublingual delivery which provides pain relief to cancer patients in a fraction of the time. The problem is that Zanna Pharmaceuticals is an extremely small fish in an incredibly big pond. Touting a study showing impressively low addiction rates, Liza goes out to find doctors to push their miracle drug. Eventually, she convinces Dr. Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James) to come on board. All it took was that initial window into the market. In almost the blink of an eye, Zanna Pharmaceuticals is raking in money hand over fist. Of course, it is too good to be true and greed becomes the driving force behind Zanna Pharmaceuticals’ business practices.
David Yates directed Pain Hustlers and Wells Tower wrote the screenplay. Tower based the screenplay on Evan Hughes’s New York Times article turned novel Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup. Yates has directed several films in the past, but typically in the fantasy realm (almost exclusively in the Harry Potter universe). Pain Hustlers is certainly a departure from his usual genre, however that is far from apparent. The film is Tower’s first feature length project, but based on the strong script it would be impossible to tell.
Pain Hustlers is inspired by real events, but numerous Hollywood liberties were taken. The inspiration for the film is Insys Therapeutics and their founder John Kapoor. Kapoor was bribing doctors to prescribe his drug Subsys, which contained fentanyl that patients became addicted to. Pain Hustlers mirrors the general idea but fictionalizes many of the characters including Liza. Liza was a combination of several whistle-blowers and stories uncovered by Hughes and others during their investigations. Blunt takes the role and runs away with it. She is given the opportunity to show a range of emotions and knocks it out of the park. The rest of the cast is a collection of impressive talent, and they don’t disappoint.
Pain Hustlers is perplexing. On one hand there is a lot the film does well. The performances are strong and the script features plenty of entertaining moments and good pacing. The wardrobes are great and noticeable – truly capturing the shift in the character’s lives yet staying true to themselves. The music blends seamlessly with scenes throughout. Yates’s direction is strong with a flashy and fresh style that matches the party lifestyle these Pharmaceutical big shots were enjoying. On the other hand, the lack of a central purpose holds the film back. There is a missed opportunity to be more. To show more humanity and greed and remove some of the fun. This ultimately results in a film shallower than it could, and should, be. Pain Hustlers is entertaining and worth a watch, but it’s just that – fun with a limited impact.
Pain Hustlers is streaming now on Netflix.