In Pain Hustlers, David Yates embarks on a different kind of project that couldn’t be further away from his recent franchise output (most notably 7 Harry Potter films as well as its spin-off franchise Fantastic Beasts). Tackling a real-life incident that was a game-changer in fighting corruption in medicare, the film manages to capture attention from start to finish despite being too by-the-numbers, offering very little depth or insight into the case.
Accessible, entertaining and fast-paced, Pain Hustlers feels made for a Saturday night, one-time consumption. With that in mind, the film has limited ambition or artistic scope, never trying to elevate its subject or offer something more than a traditional narrative that proceeds from point A to point B as though we’re watching a dramatized news report.
It’s a shame because at the heart of this story, a Wolf of Wall Street-esque take on how corporate and personal greed truly blinds one’s conscience and ability to truly grasp the consequences, is a fascinating character in the form of Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), the single mother who quickly turned into one of the most prolific sales reps in the country, one who raked in millions of dollars, selling a new kind of opioid to patients in desperate need of pain relief. With a more capable script, Drake – and the entire story – could have made for a much more memorable film, one that goes under the skin of its characters instead of just letting us watch them proceed from failure to success in rather uneventful ways.
Based on a book by journalist Evan Hughes, the film follows Drake who had been a bar dancer before she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), an unsuccessful drug rep for a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Recognizing the company is already a sinking ship with nothing more to lose, Brenner sees in Draka someone extremely ambitious and decides to offer the opportunity of a lifetime: to work for the company and attempt to convince just one medical practitioner to prescribe the drug to a cancer patient. If Drake is successful, a gamble even by Brenner’s standards, she would be finally able to earn enough money to provide for her daughter, leave her bar days behind and save the company from doom.
Not only does Drake pass the test, she does it with flying colors to the shock of everyone involved. Utilizing her smarts and charm, Drake convinces a doctor (Brian d’Arcy James) to prescribe the drug to a veteran cancer patient whose life has been chattered by chronic pain. But that prescription came with a price: Drake’s company would have to bribe their way to success, kicking off a ‘speaker’s program’ where they would offer complying medical practitioners a set of benefits, financial and otherwise, to guarantee their loyalty.
The plan works and Drake soon forms her own team of mostly female sales reps, teaching them all the necessary skills and tricks to land clients, grow their own commissions and rapidly increase market share for the company. It all goes well, perhaps even too well, until Drake has a change of heart as she witnesses the harrowing aftermath of her plan. What makes matters more complicated is the company’s decision to convince their medical practitioner allies to start prescribing the drug to non-cancer patients. Pain is pain, Brenner argues, and profit is just too attractive to resist – and the entire sales rep team seems to agree, save for Drake who decides it’s time to stop the entire operation.
Despite the film’s flaws, where everything almost feeling like it’s on autopilot mode, procedurally moving along swiftly to a point where you’d be able to predict midway how this is all going to end, Emily Blunt delivers a fantastic performance as a woman who, despite her irresponsible actions, still makes us root for her to correct her actions, even if it’s too late. Blunt manages to convey the woman’s destructive ambition and cunningness while also allowing herself to embody the character’s profound sense of guilt as she realizes the gravity of her actions. The film rests on her shoulder as she navigates a covetous, money-blinded world so unfazed by the lives it has shattered and helps us see that corporate greed can just be as addictive as the pain-relieving drugs it has set out to market.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release Pain Hustlers in the U.S. on October 27.