Pain Hustlers

Emily Blunt is excellent in this big pharma takedown that otherwise sticks to the prescription.
Sarah Ward
Published on October 19, 2023


UPDATE, Friday, October 27, 2023: Pain Hustlers screens in select cinemas from Thursday, October 19, and streams via Netflix from Friday, October 27.


There's never been any need to be subtle about Emily Blunt's talents as an actor. A resume filled with My Summer of Love, The Devil Wears Prada, Sunshine Cleaning, Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, Sicario, Mary Poppins Returns, A Quiet Place and its sequel, plus The English on the small screen, keeps proving a helluva showcase. With those versatile roles and others — Oppenheimer and Jungle Cruise are her most-recent big screen credits — Blunt gives audiences a very particular and highly welcome present. Every part for every actor sees them play characters that are constantly adjusting to their situation, given that's just what life is all about, but watching Blunt convey that experience is quite the gift. As her filmography repeatedly demonstrates, she knows better than most how to weaponise a stare and a pause, convey uncertainty with a shift and a gesture, and use both tone and pace to dig in — and, in a long line of excellent Blunt performances, that knack is on full display in Pain Hustlers.

This pharma drama's best star — Chris Evans (Ghosted), Catherine O'Hara (Elemental), Andy Garcia (Expend4bles), Brian d'Arcy James (Love & Death) and Chloe Coleman (Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves) all leave an imprint as well, but Blunt is the movie's knockout — steps into the shoes of Liza Drake. Relentlessly adapting is the Floridian's normality; she's a single mother to teenager Phoebe (Coleman), who has epilepsy that requires surgical treatment that Liza can't afford, and also lives in her sister's garage while stringing together cash from whichever jobs she can find. It's at one such gig as an exotic dancer, where her talent for sizing up a scenario and making the most of it is rather handy, that Pete Brenner (Evans) crosses her path. He wants more than her barside banter, proposing that she comes to work for him. If he didn't want her to genuinely take it up, he shouldn't have made the offer.

Also apparent in Pain Hustlers: the latest on-screen takedown of the pharmaceutical industry and corresponding interrogation of the opioid crisis, aka one of pop culture's current topics du jour. Indeed, in only his second non-Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts film since 2007 (the other: The Legend of Tarzan), director David Yates happily relies upon the fact that this realm is common ire-inducing knowledge no matter whether you've read journalist Evan Hughes' coverage of Insys Therapeutics — including 'The Pain Hustlers', a New York Times Magazine article, then The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup, the non-fiction book that followed. First-time screenwriter Wells Tower draws upon both, but similarly knows that his fictionalisation rattles around a heavily populated domain. Stunning documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed earned an Oscar nomination, miniseries Dopesick picked up an Emmy, and both Painkiller and The Fall of the House of Usher have hit Netflix in 2023 — as will Pain Hustlers — while diving into the same subject.

In reality, Insys marketed a fentanyl spray called subsys for pain management, then came under legal scrutiny for adopting a whatever-it-takes approach to encourage doctors to champion the fast-acting, strong and addictive opioid. That's the Pain Hustlers story as well, as intercut early with faux documentary-style chats with the film's characters to make it plain from the outset that there's comeuppance in store for their unscrupulous and infuriating actions. Pete is a hotshot at Zanna, a pharmaceutical startup under the guidance of widower doctor Jack Neel (Garcia) that's spruiking its own mist. In his strip-club employment pitch, Pete doesn't tell Liza that the company's days are numbered if medical professionals keep steering clear of their drug lonafen. During that chat, he also doesn't glean how determined that the ever-enterprising Liza is when she sets her mind on something.

From a starting point of zero, Liza boosts lonafen's market penetration to 86 percent quickly in the rise portion of Pain Hustlers' tale. Again, viewers are well-primed that the fall will come, but this is a hustling-fuelled, capitalism-indicting, "what would you do?" type of telling. An amalgamation of a few IRL folks, Liza is the only person who finds an angle into medicine cabinets, getting lonely pain-clinic doc Lydell (James) over the line in no small part thanks to paying him attention. She's also the only character with questions about the corporate-sanctioned move into bribes, false claims, and flouting regulations in the pursuit of more and more success ("grow or die," implores Neel). Hollywood neatness lingers in her arc, as someone with an urgent need for money to help her family and sincerity in her belief that she's slinging a worthy product, while also enamoured with the upgrade from motel living to a palatial apartment, even hiring her mother (O'Hara), and proving exceptional and influential at her task. That's where Blunt, who is also one of Pain Hustlers' producers, couldn't be more crucial — selling every slippery, driven, desperate, calculating, American dream-chasing and well-meaning choice alike.

In a version of this film that didn't feature Blunt, everything would suffer, including her co-stars. From Evans in Knives Out- and The Gray Man-esque skeezy terrain (so, worlds away from Captain America) to Garcia getting hopped up on greed, everyone in Pain Hustlers is at their best when they're reacting to her — and, of course, she's equally formidable whether she's in the centre of the glossily shot frame alone or flanked. Making workmanlike contributions, Yates and Tower prescribe only the expected otherwise. Apart from stressing that their movie isn't advocating pushing pills (well, sprays in this instance), their doco-leaning segments are gimmicky, even when they survey patients with horror stories. Pain Hustlers is still engaging enough, though, but it's the picture's terrifically cast lead that's compulsive to watch.

When Liza, Pete and company — Jay Duplass (Industry) and Amit Shah (Happy Valley) are among Zanna's other employees — are making bank, the lonafen playbook isn't far removed from their competitors. In a film that recalls The Big Short and Martin Scorsese's work, there's a raging case of like plot, like movie as blatant as a bright-orange pill cylinder. Pain Hustlers doesn't just tread in Dopesick et al's footsteps, but in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street's as well. Liza could be a sibling to Erin Brockovich's namesake, too, with the performance to match. And, as it trades in horrific details yet never goes full horror like The Fall of the House of Usher, Succession also lingers. In one of Evans' great scenes, in fact, he takes to the stage in costume and raps the drug's praises. He's decked out like a lonafen spray, but he's firmly and gleefully in Kendall Roy territory. It's an entertaining moment, but also underscores the difference between watchable and spectacular.


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