Pain Hustlers: Emily Blunt does Erin Brockovich in a painful Big Pharma drama

Chris Evans, Andy Garcia and Emily Blunt in Pain Hustlers
Chris Evans, Andy Garcia and Emily Blunt in Pain Hustlers - Brian Douglas/Netflix

Pain Hustlers is rather like a famous meme from That Mitchell and Webb Look – “Are we the bad guys?” pondered David Mitchell, as a jobbing Nazi. Imagine this scenario, only with pharmaceutical sales reps who think they’ve found a ticket to the good life. Everything’s golden – doctors are signing prescriptions like mad for their pain-relief wonder drug, even to non-cancer patients who don’t technically need it. Trouble is, it’s a spray containing fentanyl, and to get addicted is practically a death sentence.

This factually iffy story is only loosely inspired by the source material – a 2018 New York Times article, “The Pain Hustlers”, and a subsequent book telling the whole saga of an opioid start-up. Inventing characters is strike one against the film, especially as it’s full of mock interviews pretending this is some I, Tonya-style exposé: it lets director David Yates and screenwriter Wells Tower cook up whatever dubious sob stories they like to direct our sympathies one way or another.

We’re rooting at all times for Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), because she’s a penniless single mother whose daughter (Chloe Coleman) has epilepsy. Liza must have watched Erin Brockovich enough times to try her luck to try her luck in a series of flattering dresses and sashay her way into a struggling firm that hasn’t yet mastered buttering up the medical establishment.

Blunt chomps down on her role with relish – but even she can’t disguise that this character is a shameless construct, her job being to hold the viewer’s hand and make the selling of opioids seem like a thrilling grift, until she wakes up. Behaving much as if this was a genuine biopic, she wrestles good moments out of the actors playing colleagues: sleazy Chris Evans as the shark who hires her, an initially benign Andy Garcia as their boss, and the always-good Jay Duplass as a squirmy also-ran.

Even the film’s best scenes, though, feel so thoroughly beholden to the boom-bust template of so many other get-rich sagas, from The Wolf of Wall Street through Hustlers, that they give you a fuzzy sensation of déjà vu, not unlike jet lag. Yates hasn’t got the style game to sell this package, and relies on his actors wholly to chivvy it along.

Breezily palatable as it’s meant to be, the last stretches of the story can hardly help but stick in the craw – the part where Liza’s confronted quite directly with destroyed lives (none of them major characters) and defends herself in court as tearfully contrite. Pain Hustlers offers the brief, cheap catharsis of watching fictitious figures convicted for other people’s wrongdoing, prescribing the bare minimum dose of bitter comeuppance. It’s hard to extend much credit for the subject matter when it’s exploited for a “wild ride” that isn’t even wild, hawking a true story that isn’t even true.

On Netflix from Nov 27