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It would be significantly easier to write about “Pain Hustlers” if it bordered some extreme of either great or terrible, good or disappointing. Instead, director David Yates’ star-powered opioid exposé is simply a boring chronicling of Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a determined single mother whose marketing tactics sparked an epidemic. By playing with formalism, using faux documentary, and cranking out hedonistic scenes of excessive drug taking and partying, Yates aims to blend “Erin Brockovich” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But the director’s filmic language never offers quite enough sex, quite enough excess, quite enough of capitalism’s depravity. “Pain Hustlers” just doesn’t know how to commit.
Yates teases: He opens his film on a staged black and white documentary, as a brash Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) explains his shock and disappointment that Liza would betray him. She begins as a mystery woman, an unlikely mother with a GED education who brought down an empire. When Yates switches away from the in-film documentary to the semi-fictional (“Pain Hustlers” is an inspired adaptation of Evan Hughes' non-fiction work The Hard Sell), world of the picture, Liza is living in her sister’s basement with her mother (Catherine O’Hara). During the day, she takes her rebellious daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) to school; at night, she works as an exotic dancer at a strip club.
Wells Tower’s congested screenplay, a work of saucy punchlines left to sour, concerns the desperation Liza feels: Not only have Liza and Phoebe been evicted from her sister’s garage, but Phoebe is battling seizures stemming from a lethal medical condition. The pair move to a motel whose noisy environment and loud environment also carries the potential of future episodes. Liza needs a break, quick. It arrives when Pete appears at her strip club. They begin to talk. He likes her tenacity; she sees an easy customer. An impressed Pete offers her a job, promising her six figures in her bank account before the end of the year. If that sounds too good to be true, it is. Pete works for a floundering pharmaceutical startup founded by Jack Neel (Andy Garcia). They sell fentanyl, a drug they promise isn’t addictive and works better and quicker than the usual pain relief provided to cancer patients. A competitive market of other pharmaceutical companies, who keep doctors from prescribing the company’s medication, is the only reason they haven’t gotten off the ground. Still, for Liza, working on commission is better than nothing.
Blunt is really the only reason to watch “Pain Hustlers.” She gives a game performance, but poor creative decisions undermine her, like ill-considered freeze frames and unnecessary uses of voiceover. As a character, Liza is also too simplistic. Through her grit, she gets a doctor to sign a prescription for fentanyl (the doctor gets a kickback; the startup gets the upfront money; she receives a percentage). Once she gets one doctor hooked, Liza and Peter go about paying other doctors to switch over to prescribing their drug. The company quickly grows, and Liza rises from the motel to a swank condo within six months, with Phoebe attending an expensive prep school. Business is so good that not only does Liza buy her mom a new car, but she gives her a job at the startup, too. Liza succeeds because of her dedication: She truly believes she’s helping people in pain, and in some way, she connects their suffering with her daughter’s seizures. Blunt understands that throughline, pulling it out but never explicitly showing that undercurrent.
Outside of Blunt, no one else exceeds the daft material. When Evans first turned skeevy in “Knives Out,” the subversion of his Captain America image worked. But after “The Gray Man,” dipping back in the well here is overkill—especially because Pete is the weakest iteration of that character type. Evans is wasted in “Pain Hustlers,” with few memorable emotions and even fewer admirable quips. Garcia is mostly an afterthought; O’Hara appears stuck in quicksand. Snap, chemistry, verve, whatever you want to call it, is lacking with this ensemble.
Likewise, the visual and sonic language flops. Yates tries to pull off several dizzying montages of unrestrained partying, greed, and opulence without the panache to make them stick. We’ve seen Martin Scorsese do this so much better, with greater precision, with an alluring flair for the intoxicating elements of a frenzied and craven environment. In Yates’ hands, the same techniques and scenes of zealot capitalists cheering for cash at any cost feel desperately composed rather than uniquely edgy.
“Pain Hustlers” is better at understanding sincerity. Scenes where Liza sees former friends become addicts off her drug when the living speak about the loved ones they’ve lost to overdose, allow the film to find sure, empathetic footing. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those scenes. Yates is caught between critiquing the inhumanity of this startup and luxuriating in its gaudiness.
This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "Pain Hustlers" will be available in select theaters on October 20th and on Netflix on October 27th.
Emily Blunt as Liza Drake
Chris Evans as Pete Brenner
Britt Rentschler as Camille Trask
Selena Anduze as Kate Elliston