The suburban opioid crisis, like the war on terror and the ‘08 financial collapse before it, finally gets the smug “explainer video” treatment. After faintly respectable yet dull social dramas like Ben is Back, Beautiful Boy, and the miniseries Dopesick (not to mention documentaries like All the Beauty and the Bloodshed) softened the ground, this fall Netflix is releasing both their own “Big Pharma as callous death merchants” limited series Painkiller, as well as the feature film Pain Hustlers. The tone of both could aptly be described as “can you believe what these SOBs got away with?” exasperation over drug companies getting half your family strung out on pharmaceutical-grade narcotics. Directed by dutiful steward of the J. K. Rowling cinematic universe David Yates, and loosely inspired by the Insys Therapeutics scandal of the 2010s, Pain Hustlers explores the way a pharmaceutical startup was able to hook a large segment of the country on Fentanyl through a perverse incentive structure where people with ailments ranging from broken bones to migraines were prescribed highly-addictive pain medication meant for stage-4 cancer patients. Millions died of overdoses, the walls eventually came crashing down on the scheme, and the Feds rushed in to arrest everyone, yet the film insanely positions the entire sordid affair as the saga of a brave whistleblower standing up and doing the right thing. Sure, everyone got rich off of the suffering of others, which means the film gets to dwell on all the beachfront real estate, corporate retreats, designer clothes, and luxury cars, but at least somebody tried to do the right thing just before the bottom fell out. And isn’t that what really matters?
Emily Blunt plays Liza Drake, a Florida stripper so singularly unconvincing the film can’t be bothered to go through the motions of showing her perform during a shift. Living out of her sister’s garage, driving a car that belches black smoke, beefing with her ex, and trying to raise a delinquent tween daughter with a serious medical disorder, Liza is an unimaginative writer’s construct of what a desperate person looks like — all that’s missing is having her walk around in a wooden barrel. While at work Liza chats up yammering pharmaceutical rep Peter Brenner (Chris Evans). whose shadiness is telegraphed by his perma-five o’clock shadow goatee and unaddressed Boston accent (the actual case took place in Massachusetts, so this feels like a vestigial remnant of an earlier version of the film). After what we’re meant to believe is a couple of hours spent talking with Liza at the bar — you know, behavior sleazy strip clubs are totally cool with — a drunken Peter offers her a job to come work for him at the pharmaceutical firm, Zanna, despite her possessing no actual qualifications other than the highly desired, only-in-the-movies talent of knowing how to “read” people. It probably doesn’t hurt that she can fill out a low-cut blouse.
When Liza takes him up on his offer and shows up at the Zanna offices, she finds the company seemingly weeks away from bankruptcy and presided over by eccentric millionaire and company founder Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia, inexplicably doing a wavering Foghorn Leghorn impersonation). Dr. Jack’s “miracle” Fentanyl spray, Lonafin, is stagnating in the market as doctors refuse to prescribe it. Despite being exponentially more effective than the competition, Lonafin has been frozen out as larger, better-funded pharmaceutical companies have most doctors already wrapped around their fingers, pushing their drugs instead. Told she has a week to “close a whale” (which is to say convince at least one outpatient doctor in her territory to prescribe Lonafin to an actual patient) or she’ll be fired, it appears as though Liza’s professional lifeline is more of a noose. Yet through gumption, persistence, and screenwriting contrivance, Liza finally convinces a suitably unscrupulous doctor (Brian D’Arcy James) to play ball, and faster than you can say “side effects may include,” she’s off to the races.
Pain Hustlers primarily deals with the practice of “speaker programs” where doctors are paid to evangelize medication to other doctors, typically at all-expenses-paid corporate getaways, a technically legally but closely monitored, potentially unethical practice. Cutting corners to save money and avert the notice of federal regulators, Liza and Peter begin to run speaking tours around the Southeast, which, along with kickbacks and outright bribes (there’s an especially egregious Omaha Steaks product placement in the film), allows Zanna to thrive — and Liza with it. Cut to Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” and we watch as Liza elbows aside the competition, rolling up dozens of doctors, clinics, and pill shops while the numbers on her checks go up. Seemingly every day is a party of backslapping and “ain’t I a stinker” smirks. Soon, Liza’s traded in her sister’s garage for a condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, is pulling down a six-figure salary (and millions in stock options only months away from vesting), and even hires on her mother (Catherine O’Hara, appearing to be enjoying herself wearing mini-skirts and knee-length boots) alongside a small army of former strippers, ex-beauty pageant contestants, and high school drop-outs in push-up bras to serve as sales reps. But success only breeds discontent, and once Dr. Jack starts demanding increased profits, it’s just a matter of time before Peter suggests they start paying doctors to push Lonafin “off label” (i.e, to treat ailments for which medication hasn’t been FDA-approved) to expand their market share, inadvertently creating a nation of addicts in the process.
Yates has semi-anonymously directed some of the most financially successful blockbusters of all time, but overseeing the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” is a poor training ground for either a dense explication of corporate greed or a morally ambiguous adult drama. The film employs a quasi-documentary framing device that allows it to dump scads of expletive-laced exposition on the viewer, as well as inelegantly inserted, direct-address victim testimonials, only to abandon the device for so long one questions whether the filmmakers have simply forgotten about it. Pain Hustlers is positively riddled with incredulous plot devices and eye-rolling contrivances — to name but one example, much is made of how the increasingly paranoid Dr. Jack refuses to send texts or emails documenting his illegal activities, to the the point the film builds a minor heist into its third act so that Liza can retrieve an incriminating, hand-marked computer printout, only to later show the ultra-careful executive responding to an email from a sexual conquest where he signs off on malfeasance seemingly “just because” — which does little to reinforce the idea that we’re getting an insider’s account. Although based on Evan Hughes’ 2018 New York Times Magazine article, the extent to which this has been thoroughly researched feels limited to the filmmakers watching The Wolf of Wall Street through their fingers, speeding through most of the truly debauched behavior (it’s a curiously sex-less film with Blunt not even given a superficial love interest) and reducing a criminal conspiracy to something that feels like “pyramid schemes for beginners.” And then there is the genuinely baffling aesthetic decision to shoot the film with anamorphic lenses yet frame every single shot so that the dominant action takes place dead center in the middle of the widescreen frame. It all adds to the sensation that the film is an antiseptic-looking, underpopulated — though set in 2011, it might as well have been shot during Covid for how empty all the office spaces look — shoebox diorama entirely devoid of humanity.
But what genuinely rankles here is the entire conception of the Blunt character, an amalgamation of a handful of individuals where the film’s dearth of imagination and maturity feels especially insulting. Freed from any kind of obligation to honor a real person, the film still equivocates, presenting the character as relentless when it comes to venial sins like bribing doctors to boost her sales commissions and keeping regulators in the dark (“going 67 in a 65” as the characters are fond of saying), while drawing a difference with distinction as it pertains to mortal transgression like prescribing Lonafin off-label. Despite possessing all the killer instincts of her more seasoned colleagues and every bit the financial incentive they do to push the envelope — in an especially manipulative touch, we learn her daughter’s life-saving surgery will cost $400k, which she can neither afford nor secure a loan to pay for in spite of being a millionaire — the film repeatedly attempts to differentiate Liza from her unscrupulous coworkers; she’s only going along with this out of fear of financial ruin and concern for her daughter. Hers is the voice of dissent, reason, and compassion; the film even gives Liza a subplot where her former neighbor overdoses, allowing Blunt to sob and beg for forgiveness as his widow shuts the door in her face. Pain Hustlers is attempting to create an actual dichotomy of heroes and villains in the world of scummy pharmaceutical reps without ever acknowledging the character’s willful blindness to the effects of pushing a highly potent narcotic on the public. It’s all very “I’m shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” without the necessary compartmentalization or self-awareness required to make the character compelling — or, to quote one of the few non-quack doctors featured in the film, upon being told Lonafin might be habit-forming, “no shit, it’s Fentanyl.” The film addresses Liza’s legal exposure and ultimate culpability while still finding reason for her to hold her head high. So while it may be unfair to Yates, it’s too tempting not to equate this sort of simplistic approach with his nearly two decades directing films for children. The director wears the script’s glibness as uncomfortably as Pain Hustlers does his unearned faith in humanity. Truly, the worst of all worlds.
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 4.