The opioid epidemic has been covered cinematically to the point of overexposure, so what more could a new Netflix drama really add to the conversation? Pain Hustlers aims to tell a different story, shifting focus from the victims of the crisis to the greedy pharmaceutical companies responsible in the first place. Morally grey and claiming to be “inspired by real events,” Pain Hustlers is a fascinating film tinged with dark comedy and A-list talent. While the entire cast impresses, Emily Blunt and Chris Evans definitely leave the largest imprint. Is there ever a “right reason” to toy with the wellbeing of innocent people just for the bottom line?
Director David Yates, most known for taking over the Harry Potter franchise starting with The Order of the Phoenix, tries his hand at Pain Hustler’s crime/drama stylings. An oft-utilized framing device peppering black-and-white interviews over the action does help to properly acquaint the audience to these characters, even if it feels a bit tired to constantly revisit. Between all of these people, Liza (Blunt) is the one constant that everyone seems to agree on. Their company, Zanna Therapeutics, cited as the El Chapo of opiates, presented customers with a revolutionary cancer drug that would almost entirely eliminate pain. The primary ingredient was also fentanyl.
Struggling single mom Liza cannot seem to find a constant career path that sticks; for years, she has hopped from odd job to entrepreneurial opportunity to cosmetics and everything in between. At the strip club, Liza latches on to smooth-talking sales rep Pete (Evans). Is it any surprise that the two are destined to thrust Zanna Therapeutics into the drug stratosphere? Pete decides to tweak Liza’s resume to make her look more appealing. In just minutes, on paper, Liza goes from a gal who never got her G.E.D. into one with a PhD and a Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry. Evans camps it up here, embracing the wonkiness of his accent, and Blunt is his sassy-but-classy perfect foil. Catherine O’Hara pops in as Liza’s mother and eventual sales rep for a few short scenes. I wish she had a bit more to do, especially considering O’Hara’s immeasurable talent.
Pain Hustlers has a blast exploring the rise of Zanna, and the script from Wells Tower, based on the book by Evan Hughes, unearths moral complexities in Liza’s character. Daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) has a rare condition that brings on spontaneous seizures. The only way to cure her would be to scoop out part of her brain, or embrace a successful keyhole method not covered by insurance. Money makes the world go round—if not to save or at least help the ones we love most, then what’s really the point of even having a job in the first place? Naturally, the very concept opens a flood of interesting questions. Why is Phoebe’s life more important than that of those who overdose on the miracle drug?
Pain Hustlers has more fun than one would anticipate for being about such serious subject matter. At one point, we stop for a random Chris Evans rap interlude, and waiting for the ticking time bomb of Liza’s identity to be revealed takes the movie in several zippy directions. Owning the market for breakthrough cancer pain means nothing without the data to back it up. Perhaps Pain Hustlers is not the most original movie about the opioid epidemic; yet, David Yates brings stylish flair and David O. Russell-esque ensemble vibes to this fast-paced, memorable little Netflix flick.
One will have a “very high addiction rate” to Pain Hustlers, premiering in theaters this weekend, followed by a Netflix release on Friday, October 27th.