It would be hard to argue that the US isn’t fighting a uniquely intense battle with opioids right now; with pain relief drugs offering big business, existing rules and regulations seem to have allowed a widespread sport of running a coach and horses through them in the name of capitalism. From a New York Times article by Evan Hughes, Pain Hustlers tells the familiar rags to riches to excess to prison story that was enshrined in Wolf of Wall Street, but has always been a tv movie staple going back to such tales of medical malfeasance as 1997’s Breast Men.
A far larger fish to fry, Pain Hustlers was snapped up by Netflix for a reported $50 million, and has a number of angles to attract a mainstream audience; the director is David Yates, usually occupied in the Harry Potter sludge-mill, and the movie stars icons Mary Poppins and Captain America in the form of hip stars Emily Blunt and Chris Evans. Blunt plays Liza Drake, a single mom and unsuccessful stripper who needs a job; Evans plays Pete Brenner, who works under eccentric boss Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) for a dodgy pharmaceutical company on the brink of shutting up shop. Drake needs a sale and fast, not least because her daughter requires a brain operation urgently, and so she bends the rules to entice a put-upon doctor to prescribe their own brand painkiller. When the money starts pouring in, Brenner’s influence means that standards drop further, and soon this addictive product is being prescribed for all kinds of ailments it wasn’t intended for, with deadly consequences…
With the actors strike meaning that there are no tie-in interviews to tame the inherent bias of legacy media, Pain Hustlers has been a terribly reviewed film for Netflix, but it’s actually not that bad. Blunt certainly conveys agency, even if the contrived motivations used to justify her tough-mom’s-love efforts push her too hard. Evans is also better than his usual lunky schtick as Brennan, a sleazy, immoral salesman who isn’t interested in anything but his own bottom line. And Catherine O’Hara has a fun set of comic cameos as Drake’s mother, but the importance of her role only becomes apparent in the audience-pleasing plot twists of the film’s final scenes.
Underneath the usual faux Netflix sheen, Pain Hustlers does have a relevant message for our times; the rich find ways to pitch the poor against each other for sport, and the easily degraded lives of anyone neither rich nor famous are increasingly at risk. As the tagline suggests, this is a story of American Excess, but by framing an upbeat, feel-good story against a real human catastrophe, Yates blunts his own message, and it’s fair to complain that the well-meaning but overtly fabricated Pain Hustlers somehow ends up letting the bad guys off the hook once again.