Twenty twenty-three marks the 25th anniversary of the first film David Yates ever directed, and his tenth overall. Nine of those have come since 2007, and seven of those have been films in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – the last four Harry Potter films and the three Fantastic Beasts films. Before his newest film, the only exception also originated from a famous book and had heavy genre associations, that being 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan.
Given that few other directors have so thoroughly pigeonholed their own abilities during that quarter century, it’s not such a surprise that Yates would want to prove what else he can do. It turns out he thought his ticket to expanding his credibility was Pain Hustlers, a fictionalisation of the real rise and fall of the pharma company Insys, another one of those stories where the main character recounts “minor” ethical compromises that led to obscene wealth before it all came crashing down. Critics probably talk too much about how one film resembles another, but a recent example of this template had almost the same title: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers from 2019.
The ”minor ethical compromise” in question is getting millions of Americans addicted to opioids. The fictitious stand-in for Insys is Zanna Therapeutics, which used the dangerously addictive and potentially toxic drug fentanyl in their cancer pain relief pill Lonafen, whose primary benefit over the competition was its fast onset time – five minutes, whereas others took as long as 45. The key to getting the drug to catch on was bribing doctors by giving them kickbacks for exclusively prescribing it, and despite the phenomenal seemingly overnight success of the drug, the greed fuelling the pharma industry was such that the company soon began incentivising doctors to write scripts for such ordinary conditions as migraine headaches.
Pain Hustlers is, of course, told from the perspective of the little guy, or girl in this case. We meet Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) as a stripper – speaking of Scafaria’s Hustlers – and single mother working in a shady Florida strip club, trying to support a daughter (Chloe Coleman) who has non-cancerous swelling in her brain that causes seizures. Her customer on one particular night is a salesman from a pharma company who’s as shady as the establishment. Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) drunkenly boasts that if he were to hire her, she could clear $100 grand in commissions. Apparently, Liza’s sales abilities can talk men out of two grand inside an hour, though we only see them talking at the bar, and it’s one of a number of ways this film shields its protagonist from appearances of immorality.
There’s a safer, more effective way of surgically treating her daughter’s condition, but it’s more expensive and isn’t covered by insurance. (It’s the larger scam that is the American medical system that’s really at fault, right?) So Liza dives into the job opportunity and begins wooing Dr. Nathan Lydell (Brian D’Arcy-James) as the first physician she can flip to Lonafen. The results are initially disastrous – she organises a speaker program where only Lydell and two podiatrists show up – but somehow this inauspicious start snowballs within six months to the sort of gratuitous profitability that allows anyone involved to buy fancy homes and cars and make it rain wherever they want. Meanwhile, patients are starting to get addicted and dying, and Zanna is coming under investigation by the feds.
“Somehow” is the key word in that last paragraph. For a film that takes on the serious subject matter of the opioid crisis, Pain Hustlers glosses over the mechanics of how all the kickbacks work and how so much money floods through so much exponential growth. We are meant to believe that word of mouth and press coverage is a big part of it, but long before Zanna truly goes off course in trying to expand the patient base of the drug, everyone has a new Lamborghini or three. Pain Hustlers is dying for a Big Short-style breaking of the fourth wall to bring up charts and graphics, instead of relying on Liza’s generic narration and an after-the-fact documentary interview format that’s used too sparsely to resonate.
Liza herself is a big part of the problem, and it’s probably some fault of the otherwise great Blunt, who also serves as executive producer. Her character is introduced to us – largely by third parties who have a gripe against her, it should be said – as some sort of cold opportunist who manipulates people for her own gain. But whether Blunt didn’t want to play someone so disagreeable or there were other considerations, Liza is portrayed with maximum audience sympathy in mind at every turn. She seems to be aware of every moral crossroads as it arrives, and meets each with great hand wringing and notifying some superior – which also includes the billionaire owner of the company, played by Andy Garcia – that what they’re doing might be wrong. She tends to be easily placated by someone like Brenner telling her they are going 67 in a 65, a reference to driving a very small amount over the speed limit, like everyone does. But that’s not the same as being conniving and manipulative. And besides, she’s just trying to be a good mother.
The rest of the pieces just slot into place. Cars and houses get bigger. A comically underqualified sales force of beautiful women gets hired on. News anchors talk breathlessly about the drug. We meet, but barely get to know, a patient or two who suffers the consequences. Before you know it, Evans has donned a costume and is on stage rapping about Lonafen as he’s flanked by scantily clad women. The one X factor is Liza’s mother, played by gifted comic actress Catherine O’Hara, who is on hand to inject some unexpected kookiness. Whatever credit Pain Hustlers gets for taking on a serious subject is nullified by its cursory handling of the victims. It’s Liza’s story, but this film is more interesting in glamourising the rise than grappling with the fall.
And where does Yates slot in? He’s proven he knows more than magic potions and lightning bolts. He’s demonstrated himself capable of a perfectly competent execution of this familiar material. In all other ways, this is the work of a muggle.
Pain Hustlers is currently streaming on Netflix.