Pain Hustlers

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If “Pain Hustlers” leaned toward some extreme of either fantastic or dreadful, good or disappointing, it would be much simpler to write about. Instead, director David Yates’ star-studded opioid exposé is just a dull account of Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a motivated single mother whose marketing strategies started an epidemic. Yates attempts to combine “Erin Brockovich” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” by experimenting with formalism, employing phony documentaries, and producing hedonistic scenes of extreme drug use and partying. But the director’s use of the cinematic language never provides just enough excess, depravity, or sex. “Pain Hustlers” is simply incapable of dedication.

As a brazen Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) expresses his outrage and dismay at Liza’s betrayal, Yates teases: “He opens his film on a staged black and white documentary.” She starts out as a mysterious mother with only a GED and the power to topple an empire. Liza is living in her sister’s basement with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) as Yates transitions from the in-film documentary to the semi-fictional world of the picture (“Pain Hustlers” is an inventive adaptation of Evan Hughes’ non-fiction work The Hard Sell). She drives her disobedient daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) to school during the day and does exotic dances at a strip club at night.

Liza’s sense of desperation is addressed in the clumsy screenplay by Wells Tower, a piece of cheeky humor left to sour: Liza and Phoebe have been evicted from her sister’s garage, and Phoebe is battling convulsions brought on by a potentially fatal medical condition. The two relocate to a motel where there may be other episodes due to its loud and chaotic surroundings. Liza urgently needs a rest. When Pete shows up at her strip club, it happens. They start talking. He admires her tenacity; she sees an easy client. Pete, who is impressed, gives her a job and guarantees her six figures in her bank account by the end of the year.

That is false if it seems too good to be true. Pete works for Jack Neel’s (Andy Garcia) failing pharmaceutical start-up. They market the medication fentanyl as being less addictive and more effective than the typical painkillers given to cancer patients. They haven’t taken off because of competition from other pharmaceutical firms, which discourages doctors from prescribing the company’s medicine. Working for a commission is still preferable for Liza to doing nothing.

Actually, Blunt is the only draw of “Pain Hustlers.” She offers a game-like performance, but she is undermined by poor creative choices like careless freeze frames and pointless narration. Liza’s personality is likewise overly straightforward.

She uses her tenacity to persuade a doctor to write a prescription for fentanyl in exchange for a percentage of the startup’s upfront payment, a bribe for the doctor, and a kickback for her. Liza and Peter start off by bribing one doctor to prescribe their medicine, then they go on to paying other doctors to switch over. With Phoebe enrolled at an expensive prep school, the business expands swiftly, and Liza moves from a motel to a posh condo in less than six months. Liza provides her mother a position at the startup in addition to buying her a new car because business is booming. Due to Liza’s perseverance and sincere belief that she is alleviating suffering, she succeeds. In some strange manner, she sees a connection between her daughter’s seizures and the suffering of those she is healing.

Nobody else surpasses the ridiculous material besides Blunt. Evans’ attempt to subvert his Captain America persona in “Knives Out” initially succeeded. But this is excessive after “The Gray Man,” especially since Pete is the weakest example of that character type. Evans is wasted in “Pain Hustlers,” which has few emotive moments to remember and even fewer commendable lines. O’Hara seems to be caught in quicksand, and Garcia is largely an afterthought. Whatever you want to call it, this group lacks snap, camaraderie, and enthusiasm.

The acoustic and visual languages are also inadequate. Yates tries to pull off a number of dazzling montages of unbridled partying, greed, and opulence without having the skill to make them memorable. Martin Scorsese has done this so much better, with more dexterity and a seductive sense for the appealing qualities of a frenetic and craven milieu. Yates’ use of the same methods and depictions of zealous capitalists cheering for money at all costs makes them appear desperate rather than unmistakably edgy.

Sincerity is easier to discern in “Pain Hustlers.” When the living talk about the loved ones they have lost to overdose, scenes where Liza sees former pals become addicted off her drug help the movie find a firm, sympathetic foundation. Sadly, there aren’t enough of those scenes. Yates is torn between criticizing the inhumanity of this enterprise and reveling in its ostentation.

This review was submitted from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. On October 20, “Pain Hustlers” will be screened in a few cinemas, and on October 27, it will be available on Netflix.

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