The scale of the opioid crisis has been well documented in books, television shows, live debates, podcasts, and everywhere else in between, but what transpired, and how it was allowed to happen, still beggars belief. Highly effective in treating acute pain, statistics show over 450,000 Americans – and many more worldwide – died due to opioid use, with fentanyl, Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin some of the main drugs prescribed by doctors. Many of their patients became reliant on them and spiralled into addiction. On the other side of the coin were the big pharmaceutical companies who ended up reaping the rewards (if you can call it that) of billions and billions of dollars in revenue. Purdue Pharmaceuticals, who pushed oxycodone en masse, saw their earnings go up $35 billion in 2017 as a result of the increase in prescriptions. They all knew what they were doing but still didn’t, seemingly, bat an eyelid.
Recently, Dopesick, Painkiller, and All The Beauty and the Bloodshed have shed light on the crisis from different points of view but for David Yates’ Pain Hustlers, the focus shifts slightly to a single mother Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) who is struggling to make ends meet in strip clubs and temp jobs. “A chance meeting in the bar with Peter Brenner (Chris Evans) offers her the chance to make $100,000 a year.” The job: working as a pharmaceutical sales representative for a failing pharma firm trying to get local doctors to prescribe the pain relief Lonafen, seen as the next big “marquee” drug on the market. With financial incentives and some fake-looking speaker programs, Liza gets her first doctor to prescribe the drug to patients, and soon the company’s profits and market share soar.
So far, so opioid-related but Pain Hustlers has different intentions from some of the other dramatic re-tellings of the crisis and tries to take a slightly more accessible way into the story. Think The Big Short or The Wolf of Wall Street where there’s an irreverence, a panache, and a certain higher-octane style than many of the other more straight-narrative-led ones: the idea is to try to inject some new energy and to try to make it more palatable and digestible but in doing so shifts too much of the focus away from the searing, unethical issues at the core of the epidemic.
Yates, winningly stretching himself out of his Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts magic into something a little more human, tries to inject his distinctive style onto proceedings but barring a few flashes, doesn’t seem to connect well with the material and vice versa. The same can be said for Blunt and Evans, two of Hollywood’s most accomplished and capable performers, but who too struggle to elevate the material as we know they can and seem incapable of getting out from underneath the strange decisions of the filmmakers and a lazy, formulaic screenplay that feels misguided and misjudged.
Will it bring some more awareness to the public of the sheer scale of the crisis? Probably, but as a film it’s flabby, dull, and lethargic, without any real flair or enticing elements, feeling instead like a cheap, half-assed version of the films previously mentioned without any of their cunning or charisma. Sadly wide of the mark.
2023 | Netflix | Drama | Now streaming on Netflix | Dir: David Yates | Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Catherine O’Hara, Brian d’Arcy James, Jay Duplass, Amit Shah