Film Reviews: Pain Hustlers
Director: David Yates
Grey Matter Productions and Wychwood Pictures
Streaming on Netflix: 10.27
If you’re looking to make pointed social commentary while keeping an audience entertained, there’s nothing like a good satire. As it happens, the darkly comic, opioid scandal film Pain Hustlers is nothing like a good satire.
Liza Drake (Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns, A Quiet Place) is a single mother who makes a meager living as an exotic dancer at a strip club in Florida, and it’s there she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans, Avengers, Knives Out), a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. Pete takes a shine to Liza, offering her a job selling doctors on a fast-acting, fentanyl-based pain medication for cancer patients and offering “incentives” to keep prescribing it. Liza finds her golden goose in Dr. Nathan Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James, West Side Story), and she quickly rises in the company, catching the eye of the eccentric CEO Jack Neel (Andy Garcia, Ocean’s Eleven) as sales skyrocket. When murky-yet-legal business practices give way to a full-on racketeering scheme, Liza must choose between her growing bank account and her nagging conscience.
David Yates did strong work with the Harry Potter franchise before Fantastic Beasts got the Avada Kedavra at the box office last year, forcing this attempt at a career transfiguration. The Sorting Hat messed up, however, placing Yates in exactly the wrong vehicle for his skills with this half-baked, fictional take on the real-life rise and fall of Insys Therapeutics. This frenzied mashup of Dopesick and The Wolf of Wall Street features enough bad choices that the blame can be widely shared, though an amateur and flailing screenplay by short story writer Wells Tower is easily first in line. Cartoonish characters, cliched plotting and a muddled story structure that includes cutaways to phony interview segments all fall flat, and the cringe-worthy dialogue is even worse. When Pete embellishes Liza’s resume, she quips, “PhD? I barely got my G.E.D!” as we wait for a rimshot that never comes, and Liza’s Goodfellas style voiceover narration includes such gems as, “We were doing 67 in a 65 zone. I mean, maybe we pushed it to 70, but that’s what it would take to storm the castle.” (Warning: Always read labels or consult an English professor before mixing metaphors). There is no consistent aim or tone, and Yates’ attempts to be innovative peak with the inclusion of the sound effect of a cash register going “Ka-Ching” every time Liza looks at a commission check—and do I mean every single time.
Blunt is miscast in the role, with her overly precise and generic American accent waiting until the third act to try adding a spoonful of Southern twang to help the characterization go down. Still, she’s a strong presence, though she can’t make stale comedy funny or hackneyed melodrama feel meaningful or compelling. Evans seems to be so preoccupied with proving that he’s more than just Captain America these days that his character choices are based more on serving that end than whatever movie he’s making. On the subject of accents, the abrasive Pete sports a thick one that is based primarily in South Boston, making occasional detours into the Bronx, with the slight possibility of layovers in Philadelphia and Chicago. Garcia milks the camp factor far too hard, and only James, as the easily corrupted Dr. Lydell, comes close to rising above the material.
I will not be prescribing Pain Hustlers to anyone, for any reason, and the only selling point is that by opening directly on Netflix rather than in theaters, it’s already covered by your insurance. Pain Hustlers should not be taken directly into the eyes or brain. Potential side effects may include nausea, headache and Chris Evans crawling to Marvel Studios and begging to have his old job back. –Patrick Gibbs