Review by Erin M. Brady
It’s hard to make an effective dramatization of the opioid crisis. As seen in recent examples, such as Hulu’s Dopesick and Netflix’s Painkiller, it is extremely easy to turn the suffering of millions into a melodramatic spectacle. Both limited series depict the spiral of opioid addiction to an almost torture porn-esque level. It might be easy to assume that Netflix’s other release on the subject matter, Pain Hustlers, would be similar, but surprisingly, it isn’t. That doesn’t necessarily make it a step forward in depicting the opioid crisis in media, though.
Liza (Emily Blunt) is a high school dropout working at a strip club to care for her daughter, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). At the club, she has a chance encounter with sleazy salesman Pete (Chris Evans), who drunkenly offers her a job at the pharmaceutical startup he works at. Once hired through illicit means, she reinvigorates the startup’s sales model, catapulting its pharmaceutical fentanyl drug into nationwide usage. Unfortunately, the realities of the drug’s usage, combined with increasingly shady business tactics, threaten to destroy Liza’s life.
Inspired by the real-life racketeering scandal that destroyed Insys Therapeutics, the film’s decision to focus on the lives of opioid salespeople and executives makes it surprisingly engaging. It’s certainly an easier watch than the aforementioned miniseries that came before it, but director David Yates reaffirms the human cost of the opioid crisis in small and impactful ways. Yates — who returns to non-franchise filmmaking here after years of spearheading the Wizarding World films — counteracts the depictions of corporate greed with these barely fictional moments of reality. It’s oddly refreshing, given how it spares viewers from having to endure more borderline-offensive portrayals of addicts to get the message across.
However, this refreshing angle is probably the only thing about the film that feels wholly unique. The film is very reminiscent of both Adam McKay and Craig Gillespie’s works, and you wouldn’t be wrong to think either of them had a role in bringing it to life. This even seeps into the way Yates directs his actors, with Evans hamming his lingo and insult-laden dialogue up with a truly bizarre accent. Blunt is more subtle in her role, but the film’s strange pacing undermines this by making her motivations seem as if they are suddenly appearing out of thin air. The same can also be said for its bizarre stylistic choices, such as its obsession with freeze frames and scene flashbacks.
Pain Hustlers's script, written by author Wells Tower, also has shades of blue-collar Succession in it to mixed results. It is evident that the film wants audiences to question their sympathies and resentments toward Liza and the other characters. Unfortunately, this reaction doesn’t feel warranted due to how one-dimensionally they are written. Even the mother-daughter dynamic between Liza and Phoebe feels like an afterthought to a story that doesn’t really exist. While Blunt and Coleman have great chemistry together, it’s not enough to elevate their character’s poorly fleshed out relationship. This demonstrates the film's main issue: it is aggressively fine and inoffensive, but thinks it’s smarter than it actually is. Unfortunately, a mediocre film that thinks itself as better than it actually is is arguably worse than a bad one.
Pain Hustlers is not a melodramatic sob story like other dramatizations of the opioid crisis, which is objectively a good thing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make up for how strangely generic it ends up being. There are simply too many small, yet strangely distinguishable decisions that drag it down and make it an instantly forgettable watch. Perhaps this is a sign that there are just some real-world events that don’t translate well in a scripted work of fiction, and should instead be thoughtfully explored in the documentary format.
Pain Hustlers is now in theaters and streams on Netflix beginning October 27.