Hollywood is no stranger to depicting the opioid industry. In the last few years, documentaries like The Crime of the Century and shows like Dopesick and Painkiller have tackled every level of the ongoing crisis, from the sleaze and greed at the top of the corporate ladder to the on-the-ground effects of how these drugs have upended lives. Pain Hustlers, a glossy new Netflix dramedy out now on the streaming platform, takes aim at one particular culprit: the pharmaceutical drug reps who pushed fentanyl as a way to boost their bottom line.
Director David Yates, known for his stints on the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, attempts to do for Big Pharma what The Wolf of Wall Street did for stocks or The Big Short did for the housing bubble — part scandalous comedy, part blistering takedown. But despite solid performances from Emily Blunt and Chris Evans, Pain Hustlers is neither shocking nor scathing enough to leave a lasting impression.
Blunt stars as our whistleblower/window into all the excess, a Gulf Coast girlboss named Liza Drake. A single mother and high-school dropout, she's willing to work as an exotic dancer or sling multi-level marketing schemes — whatever it takes to pay the bills and support her young daughter (Chloe Coleman). She quickly wins over pharmaceutical rep Pete Brenner (Evans), who hires her to help peddle a new form of fentanyl for the fictional drug company Zanna.
Brian Douglas/Netflix Emily Blunt and Chris Evans in 'Pain Hustlers'
Zanna is on the rocks. Its flagship drug, a cancer pain med called Lonafen, is supposedly twice as effective as the competition (or at least that's what they tell Liza), but Pete and his sales team can't penetrate the already tight-knit market. That's where Liza excels: She amasses an army of reps, winning over small clinics across Florida and the Southeast. Are all her sales tactics above board? Not exactly. But Liza's a master, a charming huckster who can convince a high-school principal not to expel her daughter just as easily as she can convince a doctor to go all in on an unproven drug. Before long, she even tries to convince herself that she's helping save the world. The fat paycheck is just a nice side effect.
Even as Liza wrestles with the morality of their gig, her partner Pete has no such moral qualms. Evans oozes the same entitled frat boy sleaze he brought to Knives Out and The Gray Man, proving that he's way more fun as a dirtbag than the squeaky-clean Steve Rogers. Blunt and Evans are surrounded by an impressive supporting cast. Andy Garcia plays the increasingly paranoid Zanna CEO, while Catherine O'Hara shines as Liza's kooky mother, who takes a job hocking Lonafen with her daughter. The always excellent Brian d'Arcy James is another standout as Dr. Lydell, a shady clinician who's willing to prescribe whatever drug is pushed his way, especially if the kickbacks help him pay for hair transplants.
Solid performances are overshadowed by chaos. Yates brought magic to the Wizarding World, while here, he stuffs Pain Hustlers with voiceovers, freeze frames, and black-and-white mockumentary talking heads. These are gimmicks that have been done before — and better — in films like The Big Short and now just feel derivative. All those novelties keep the film's actual subject matter at arm's length, and even though it's based on a true story, Pain Hustlers never quite reckons with the weight of what fentanyl has wrought.
The film even lets Liza off the hook, giving her a sympathetic alibi: Sure, she may have hocked addictive pain meds across the Sunshine State, but she only did it to pay for an expensive surgery for her daughter. The only real emotional beat is a brief scene where a grieving widow confronts Lydell for prescribing the drug that killed her husband. The film itself is far more interested in all the sleaze and greed, not the consequences. It's plenty entertaining, but not particularly thoughtful — just enough depth to fill a prescription pad, not a whole book. Grade: B-
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