Films can be interesting time capsules of historical moments or can at least represent what movie studios think an audience is interested in. Right now, there seems to be a belief that we really want to know how the opioid crisis, which kill 136 Americans a day, came to be. Netflix, most recently, came out with the fictional series “Painkiller,” looking at the topic and, in October, will release “Pain Hustlers,” a fictionalized exploration of a drug company that foisted opioids on doctors for personal gain.
“Pain Hustlers” is a weird look into the topic, with long-time “Harry Potter” director David Yates at the helm to tell a story with heavy shades of Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” and Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya.” Those are certainly great movies to lift tones from but in the case of “Pain Hustlers” its never gels and, coupled with Wells Tower’s simplistic script, just slogs through its two-hour runtime.
The film focuses on Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a down-on-her-luck single mother stripping to make ends meet and living with her teenage daughter in a seedy Florida motel. While at work she meets Zanna Therapeutics drug rep Peter Brenner (Chris Evans). Peter takes a shine to Liza and drunkenly offers a job, which Liza is determined to accept. Once she gets her foot in the door the goal becomes to keep the job by getting a doctor, any doctor, to agree to sell Zanna’s drug, an opioid inhaler for cancer patients.
Black-and-white interview footage — presented with no context — sees various people interviewed about who Liza Drake is, with Evans’ Peter explaining that he spends his days wishing she would die. From the sounds of it this woman is the antichrist and it would have been interesting to see a female antihero come through. Instead, Liza Drake is more like Erin Brokovich written in light shades of gray. Make no mistake, Emily Blunt anchors this movie in every scene and gesture. She’s a fierce mother, a smart woman and a helluva hard worker.
But the script almost seems afraid of making her too messy. Case in point, her introduction as she changes into her outfit at a local strip club (which feels cribbed from Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers”) and gets on-stage only to feel….awkward? upstaged?…by another dancer. It’s never stated whether Liza has worked here long but the scene plays like she got on-stage with no knowledge of what stripping means and just gives up.
Later on, when Liza becomes a Gordon Gecko/Jordan Belfort-esque drug queen, the movie always has to remind you that Liza is doing this for “the right reasons” and has a moral compass. But said compass only seems to extend to loving her daughter and feeling bad for the one white family she knows affected by Fentanyl addiction.
Thankfully, her and Chris Evans have a fabulous chemistry together and, if anything, this movie should spark the beginnings of them doing more movies in the future. Where Blunt’s Liza is cold determination Evans plays the boozy, excessive skeeze to wonderful aplomb. Much like Liza, the character is written pretty simplistically: he embraces the “greed is good” mentality. But, like Blunt, Evans can rise above the material, even with a goofy “Goodfellas”-esque accent. Blunt gives us Liza’s ambiguity in an eyebrow arch while Evans makes you feel pity for Peter with a hangdog expression.
At a little over two hours the film takes time to find its footing, situating Liza in her new job and putting her on the hunt to “get a script,” aka a doctor to start prescribing her company’s medication. From there the movie settles into a series of Scorsese-like rapid fire montages once Liza succeeds, albeit finding more challenges arbitrarily put into her path, including her daughter needing brain surgery. (Weirdly enough, the movie turns into a “health insurances suck” while never explaining how Liza, with a full-time job and making millions, can’t afford top-tier healthcare.)
The rest of the cast is solid though just as one-note. Catherine O’Hara is delightful as Liza’s spontaneous mother — showing shades of Susan Sarandon’s character in “Wall Street 2,” another movie this one holds commonalities to. Andy Garcia is also great fun as the pharma president pulling the strings.
But for a movie about the opioid crisis, everything about “Pain Hustlers” plays it safe and, dare we say, too fun? Liza and Peter spend their day partying and acting like pharma gods while black-and-white interviews — pushed to the film’s last third — talk to random patients we’ve briefly met along the way who were affected by opioids. The only ones we get anything passing for depth on are the kind-hearted hotel family Liza and her daughter meet, but even then there’s nothing more than “they were nice and dad was addicted to Fentanyl.” If you watched “Painkiller” you’ve probably gotten more information.
“Pain Hustlers” entertains thanks to its strong leads but it’s hard not to find it a derivative look at a tough topic that relies on tropes from far superior movies. Emily Blunt and Chris Evans are fabulous but you’ll be hard-pressed to remember anything else by the time the credits are done rolling.
Netflix will release “Pain Hustlers” nationwide on October 27