Film is a form of art that is autovisually driven. The crunch of gravel as a rusting car crawls across the asphalt of a sweltering strip mall. The sleek click of high heels as they journey from one end of a polished office to another. The distant crash of waves beyond a thick pane of glass separating a seaside apartment from its view. Director David Yates captures such sights and sounds in Netflix’s Pain Hustlers. Unfortunately, they’re all stilted behind the sterile lens of your average-looking Netflix original film with little substance beneath them.
Pain Hustlers is based on a 2018 New York Times Magazine article by journalist Evan Hughes and his subsequent non-fiction book, Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup (originally published as The Hard Sell). David Yates’ adaptation heavily dramatizes the true story originally reported by Hughes surrounding Insys Therapeutics, the pharmaceutical company responsible for a dangerous racketeering scheme contributing to the rise of the opioid crisis in the United States.
Netflix’s Pain Hustlers follows Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a working-class single mother looking to make ends meet in Central Florida. In a move of desperation, she joins a struggling pharmaceutical startup located in a strip mall. With the help of pharma sales rep Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) and under the pressure of her unhinged boss Jack Neel (Andy Garcia), Liza learns how to pedal fentanyl for cancer patients. As the opioid company rises from an underdog to a dominating force in the market of pain relief, Liza suspects she might be doing more harm than good. This proves to be true as she soon finds herself complicit in a criminal conspiracy.
Emily Blunt, by far, is the best part of Pain Hustlers. She embodies the leading blue-collar, single mom with both edge and vulnerability, creating, at the very least, a compelling protagonist from a lackluster screenplay. If Pain Hustlers can evoke any flicker of emotion from its audience, it’s to the credit of Blunt. Liza’s relationship with her young daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) is very well acted as well and executed with a delicate tenderness that the film takes its time to develop and is right to do so.
Catherine O’Hara as Liza’s mother, Jackie, is also a very sharp casting, wielding both a comedic and heartfelt edge. However, the script fails her more than it does the others. On the other hand, Chris Evans is the one who fails the script as Liza’s fellow pharmaceutical sales rep Pete Brenner. Evans is meant to play sleazy yet charming opposite of Emily Blunt’s conflicted Liza but lacks the screen presence to be neither endearing nor unsettling. While he did accomplish a similar feat in Knives Out, he cannot pull off that same trick here.
This dramatic retelling, written by Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), falls flat due to its unfocused nature and failed attempts at nuance. Nuance is committing to two opposing forces completely, and the complexity is derived from the push and pull of these two forces as they fight to inhabit one person. Pain Hustlers does not commit to this push and pull. The viewer is left in a no man’s land of emotional resonance. This is especially true for the commentary on wealth. Because Liza is successful at pushing pills, she becomes very wealthy. To her, though, wealth is more about respect than material goods after she went so long being treated poorly, and she only flaunts it to care for her family.
Liza is simultaneously bad because she’s wealthy for a bad reason but simultaneously good because she uses her wealth for reasonable reasons. Pain Hustlers wants us to believe that wealth corrupts, and that these people are complicit in perpetuating harm because they have an insatiable desire for more. Yet, we never see any evidence of this exhibited in the main character. In fact, Liza cannot afford surgery for her ill daughter. She is complicit because she has little choice but to be complicit, or else fall victim to the same system she exploits. Although the movie tries to paint her as sympathetic, Liza is almost a little too pure of virtue. Thus, it’s difficult to view her characters’ intricacies as nuances when nearly every road ends in her victimization. For “An American Excess Story,” its opulence is mainly aesthetic.
So, then, the movie’s commentary must be about systems, right? The American private healthcare system is arranged in such a way that it’s easily exploitable and the average person suffers for it. And yet, Pain Hustlers does little to flesh out how, structurally, it is bad. Instead, the film focuses on how the system fails to execute, i.e. bad people take advantage of the system and the punishments are not steep enough to discourage them. It’s the players who are corrupt as they follow the rules loosely.
The wealthy are bad in their endless greed for more money and the rules do not apply to them. But they are only wealthy because it is the only way they can have any dignity. And they do need the money for legitimate reasons, it’s just not excessive. However, let’s not forget that wealth also corrupts. But only because the way wealth is acquired is immoral. These points roll around in a tired cycle for the duration of Pain Hustlers, and it all culminates with a whimper as the final point the audience is left to chew on is a meager “harmful actions should have consequences, but not too harsh if you really regret it”.
Pain Hustlers is the kind of star-studded title that Netflix pushes on its homepage for two weeks, only to be soon forgotten. Households, mainly middle-aged adults trying to wind down after their eight-hour workday, will click on it since it seems vaguely interesting. Couples will get through it together, bored but not enough to turn it off, and at the end they’ll turn to another and say, “Well, that was very interesting!”
The real-life events behind David Yates’ film are inherently fascinating and should be looked into on their own. But will Netflix subscribers who click on Pain Hustlers recommend it to their work colleagues the next day? Probably not. Within a month, they’ll forget they’ve even seen it. Despite its intriguing premise, Pain Hustlers is unmoving and unmemorable.