Pain Hustlers review: Emily Blunt is ‘the only reason to watch this’

Pain Hustlers, a drama about the opioid epidemic, is “too worried about being a downer to be convincing”, writes Caryn James as the film premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Don’t confuse the recent Painkiller, an earnest Netflix series about a fictionalised pharmaceutical company and the opioid epidemic, with the new Netflix film Pain Hustlers, which has a similar story about a different fictionalised company and a tone that goes for entertaining long before it turns earnest too. Why the creators of one of these projects didn’t flinch and change the title is a good question.

And while Pain Hustlers is a perfectly fine title, the film probably should have been called Liza Drake, the name of the sales rep played by Emily Blunt, who single-handedly almost saves this tone-deaf drama from itself. As the rags-to-riches heroine who finds herself in the midst of a morally compromised situation, Blunt creates a character who is engaging, smarter than she’s given credit for, and hungry to improve her hardscrabble life as a single mother with an adolescent daughter. She makes the film watchable, but is the only reason to watch.

More like this:
– ‘This may be Winslet’s best role yet’
– ‘Funny, irreverent and crowd-pleasing’
– Miyazaki’s ‘last’ film is a masterpiece

Her character is a complete invention in a story loosely based on the real-life case of Insys Therapeutics, documented in Evan Hughes’ 2018 New York Times article The Pain Hustlers, and subsequent book, which this film is based on. Other characters are variations on real people, but the outline of corruption is the same.

Liza is working in a Miami strip club when she meets Pete, a sleazy sales manager for the fictional company, Zanna. He is played by Chris Evans with a street-wise accent so vague and wavering it could be from the New Jersey of The Sopranos or any Tough Guy Street USA. He hires her to work for the company, founded by Dr Jack Neel, played by the usually reliable Andy Garcia, whose vaguely Southern accent is all over the place too.

Neel has developed Lonafen, a fast-acting fentanyl-based drug for cancer patients, but is none-too-scrupulous about how to sell it. Goaded by Pete, Liza sets up a program that skirts the law, paying doctors a speaker’s fee that is actually a bribe to prescribe the drug. Blunt lets us feel Liza’s relief as the program takes off. We see the difference too, as her wardrobe goes from shabby and slightly tacky to less tacky (still too many sequins) and eventually sleek and upscale. She can support her daughter, played by Chloe Coleman in an immensely likeable performance. But Liza’s situation becomes more complicated when Neel decides to market Lonafen illegally, urging doctors to prescribe it for non-cancer patients, who are vulnerable to its addictive and sometimes lethal effects.

Pain Hustlers

Director: David Yates
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Catherine O’Hara
Run-time: 2hrs 2m
Release date: 20 October

The film’s biggest problem is that Liza’s success seems unconnected to the deadly product she sells until very near the end. David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies and its Fantastic Beasts prequels, knows how to create a fluent narrative even here. But it’s as if he and the screenwriter, Wells Tower, were too timid to go all in on being entertaining about such an important subject, but too worried about being a downer to weave the dark side of the story through convincingly. That is a tricky balancing act, as demonstrated by Painkiller, which went so far the other way it bludgeoned viewers with the obvious.

In Pain Hustlers, one patient says in a quick word to the camera that Lonafen “gave me back my life for a minute”, but it’s left to us to recognise that minute is the point, even after we later see two of his teeth fall out in his hand. Instead, the story focuses on Liza and Zanna’s rise, the tone echoing their euphoria as the company soars from near-bankruptcy to the top of the market. Catherine O’Hara has brief but lively scenes as Liza’s wild-child mother, and Brian d’Arcy James plays a venal doctor who is also a buffoon. When the film turns more serious and leans into its moral issue, the shift registers as viewer whiplash.

And as much as Blunt gives her life, Liza is finally too artificial a construction, made to appeal to us as the best version of the pain hustler she is. Her daughter desperately needs medical care that insurance won’t cover, a blatant device to justify her choice to keep working for Zanna even after her conscience begins to kick in.

With the final credits we see real-life news reports about the inspiration for Garcia’s character, Dr John Kapoor, who was convicted of bribery. By then Pain Hustlers has veered too far into fantasyland for anything real to matter.


Pain Hustlers is released in select US cinemas on 20 October and on Netflix internationally on 27 October.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *