PAIN HUSTLERS | USA | 2023 | 122m | English
Starring: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O'Hara, Andy Garcia
Directed By: David Yates
Based on the real-life story of capitalism run amok — chronicled by journalist Evan Hughes in his 2022 narrative non-fiction book, The Hard Sell — Pain Hustlers lures you into the glamour and excitement of success, however it may be achieved. Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) is a single mom working as a dancer at a bar when she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a greasy drug rep for a pharmaceutical startup on the verge of bankruptcy. With a hunch about her talent, he recruits her to peddle a new kind of opioid designed to give pain relief to cancer patients.
Completely out of her depth, Liza struggles to make a dent before convincing one doctor to favour her company’s drug, cracking the code and writing a new (unscrupulous) playbook for getting physicians to prescribe medication. She quickly makes her mark and forms a dazzling team that starts applying the scheme across the country. It rockets the company and Liza’s life to heights she could have never imagined. Liza eventually wakes up to the harm she’s sowing, which only complicates her relationship with Brenner, as he begins to see her as more than just a sales quota.
We root for Liza to provide a stable home for her daughter and help her mother (Catherine O’Hara), all the while doing our best to avoid the truth that she’s helping kickstart the opioid epidemic. It’s a stunning feat from Blunt, who gives a compassionate performance as a woman flying too close to a sun that's destroying people’s lives.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 4 out of 5
Pain Hustlers greatly benefits from the casting of Emily Blunt and Chris Evans that under the talented direction of David Yates, elevates this crime drama into an entertaining yet chilling tale of greed and corruption set within the opioid crisis.
Greed, wealth, power, and corruption. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that has been told in various forms on screen. Recently, there has been a fascination with these stories surrounding the pharmaceutical industry and opioid crisis with miniseries such as Dopesick and Painkiller, both of which featured the Sackler family who created PurduePharma and focused on the ginormous corporations behind opioids, the investigators trying to convict them of a crime, and the victims of the opioid crisis. While David Yates’s latest film does not offer much new to the conversation already happening in the news and generated by other projects covering the similar subject matter, Pain Hustlers uses its true story and offers a different perspective to the opioid crisis narrative: one from a drug sales rep unaware of what they are a part of, who slowly begins to discover the truth of what she is selling and must reconcile that with the damage she has caused.
Liza is struggling to provide the life she always wanted for herself and her daughter. But after a chance encounter with Pete Brenner, a pharmaceutical sales rep, Liza lands at the pharmaceutical startup he is working at. While Liza skills are perfect for the job, quickly launching her career and giving her the life she always wanted for her and her daughter, Liza soon discovers a far larger criminal conspiracy at play at her company that she unknowingly has landed in the middle of.
Emily Blunt always gives an incredible performance in every role she tackles, and her performance as Liza is no exception. As Liza, Blunt lights up the screen with a strength that dominates the film. Liza is scrappy, intelligent and determined, and Blunt brings her natural charisma to the character and infuses her with life and a fire. Her relationship with Chloe Coleman who is portraying her daughter is sweet and tender, creating the emotional connection to the film that allows the audience to forgive Liza for what she got wrapped up in. It is not a performance that is going to garner Blunt award nominations likely, but it is a solid performance that carries the entire film.
Continuing to distance himself from his most famous role as Captain America, Chris Evans co-stars alongside Blunt as Pete Brenner, the morally corrupt pharmaceutical sales rep. Evans oozes with a slick yet blatant disregard for what is right in the world, perfectly capturing what audiences associate as the stereotypical pharmaceutical sales rep making big money off people’s suffering and knowing full well the effects opioids are having on them. As a pairing, Blunt and Evans are stellar in every scene they share together, matching each other’s energy and complementing the others performances, only continuing to elevate the film. Supporting them is Andy Garcia, who is great as the mysterious investor in the company, bringing a wickedness to the film when necessary; and Catherine O’Hara as Liza’s mother is tons of fun, providing some great moments of comedic relief throughout the film.
While the story has little new to add to what other projects on this subject matter have already offered, David Yates’s direction truly brings the film to life. The style of the film is the extravagance and excess of The Wolf of Wall Street meets the pharmaceutical industry, minus the excessive swearing and drugs intake, which captures what was happening for those working at the pharmaceutical companies. In the final act, it morphs into Yates’s best imitation of a Scorsese crime drama, which creates an exciting end to the film. But, it is Yates’s focus on the minor characters in the story that makes his direction stand out. While most directors would not make much use of the background characters, Yates ensures to give them moments throughout the film to not only utilize the full talent of his entire cast, but ensure that the effects on their characters are not forgotten in the film. Whether it be on the young women that Liza gives a job to as sales reps that changes their lives, or the families who are affected by the opioid crisis, Yates ensures that these characters don’t get left behind in the dust and overshadowed by the performances of Blunt, Evans and Garcia.
While it does not change the game for films and television series depicting the opioid crisis, Pain Hustlers is entertaining thanks to the performances of its cast while providing a different perspective of the opioid crisis than other projects. Thanks to the winning combination of Emily Blunt and Chris Evans, both of whom are excellent in the main roles, David Yates finds excitement, thrills and moral complexities in Pain Hustlers, making it worth your time.