Pain Hustlers (2023, dir. David Yates)

by | Oct 27, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 122 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 27 October 2023

WHO’S IN PAIN HUSTLERS?

Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy García, Catherine O’Hara, Jay Duplass, Brian d’Arcy James, Chloe Coleman, Aubrey Dollar, Amit Shah, Willie Raysor

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

David Yates (director, producer), Wells Tower (writer), Lawrence Grey (producer), James Newton Howard and Michael Dean Parsons (composers), George Richmond (cinematographer), Mark Day (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A single mother (Blunt) propels a shady pharmaceutical company to the big leagues…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON PAIN HUSTLERS?

After spending most of his filmography somehow sucking all the magic and life out of the Wizarding World, director David Yates now aims his aimless directorial style towards a slightly livelier real-world topic: the United States opioid epidemic. Now, while it may seem quite a stretch to go from Hogwarts to a medical crisis that has claimed millions of people to addiction and even death, Yates is actually the perfect person to direct something like Pain Hustlers, for much like the director’s own unique approach to filmmaking, the film is awkward, stilted, drab, and nowhere near as interesting or even as artsy as it thinks it is.

It’s also, for an extra kick, monstrously cynical, with its blatant attempts to copy-and-paste the same formula that worked so well for other recent movies about American excess, but almost always reminding you of how much more entertaining those other films were.

Set in Florida, the film follows Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), an unemployed high-school dropout who works as a stripper to support her teen daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). At work, Liza has an encounter with struggling pharmaceutical salesman Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), who on a drunken whim invites her to interview for his failing start-up company, run by eccentric billionaire Jack Neel (Andy García). She soon manages to turn the company around by landing strip-mall doctor Dr. Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James) as a client for their drug Lonafin, which they claim can be primarily used to treat cancer patients, and through some further dodgy practises the company sees its profits skyrocket, turning Liza and her co-workers incredibly wealthy. Of course, there is a cost to their fortune – namely, the fact that Lonafin is laced with the addictive fentanyl and is getting people fatally hooked – which Liza begins realising the more that her company grows, along with the ambitions of both Brenner and the increasingly unhinged Neel.

Though it claims to be “mostly” based on a true story – it takes its inspiration from the real-life downfall of corrupt pharmaceutical company Insys and their fentanyl-addled drug Subsys, which itself was the focus of Evan Hughes’ book that shares the name of this film – Pain Hustlers feels fabricated to the point where that claim might be as honest as Insys itself. Many of the characters are entirely fabricated for this narrative, with only a handful bearing close resemblance to their real-life counterparts, which isn’t an uncommon practise in real-life storytelling but is also one that desperately needs strong enough writing to make these invented people feel real for this particular scenario. Unfortunately, Wells Tower’s screenplay struggles to give any of its characters that necessary larger-than-life feel to fit well within the wild story being told, with many of them sticking to one character trait throughout without any real development or even humanity sprinkled in. As a result, they never feel like people who could actually exist in reality, which is odd to say given that they are loosely based on people that actually exist.

To make things more difficult, Yates is once again on autopilot mode as his low-energy direction, complete with awkward staging and lazy shoot-and-point camerawork, fails to liven what should be incredibly easy to energise. This is a film where even the big bombastic celebrations feel like they were put together with little enthusiasm – which, I suppose, could signify the empty wealth these people have accumulated, if this script was actually sophisticated enough to be symbolic – because Yates is the kind of director who can suck all the fun out of a room with a sluggish pace and profound lack of interest in the script he’s been hired to shoot. God bless the actors for trying to make the most out of their lacking material and unhelpful direction, from Andy García channelling his inner Al Pacino for a crazy role you could actually see the actor playing in an alternate universe, to Chris Evans being unbearably smarmy (so far, this isn’t a good year for Chris Evans headlining sizeably-budgeted direct-to-streaming movies, after Apple’s Ghosted), to Emily Blunt going for broke in a performance that’s the best part of this movie, even if the actor struggles to convince with her character’s blatant white-trash background.

It’s a film that is simply trying to cynically cash in on the popularity of films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, with Yates even trying to mimic the directorial styles of Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay with constant freeze-frame editing and a framing device that’s this black-and-white faux-documentary that the movie only ever occasionally returns to. However, since Yates is nowhere near as formidable a filmmaker as either of those two, he only leaves you even more bored because you’ve seen it all before, done far better and with plenty more to say.

Only Emily Blunt’s committed turn saves Pain Hustlers from being a complete pharma-disaster.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Pain Hustlers is a drab and awkwardly executed depiction of the rise-and-fall of a pharmaceutical company during the opioid crisis, with characters and styles that fall completely flat despite some committed turns.

Two out of five stars

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