Emily Blunt and Chris Evans star in this ripped-from-the headlines depiction of the big bucks behind being a pharma rep.
PLOT: After a chance encounter with a fast-talking pharma rep (Chris Evans), a desperate single mother (Emily Blunt) goes to work for a pharmaceutical start-up that’s pushing a revolutionary new drug.
REVIEW: Pain Hustlers suffers because it comes out hot on the heels of two excellent limited series about the opioid epidemic, Hulu’s Dopesick and Netflix’s Painkiller. Those shows took a macro approach to the epidemic, focusing on the Sackler family, the marketing of oxycontin, and its effect on the public. They did a pretty good job delivering a nuanced version of the story. Smartly, David Yates’ Pain Hustlers (also from Netflix) doesn’t focus on Oxycontin, with it being loosely based on what happened with a company called Insys. Still, it tells its story in a straightforward, good guys and bad guys way that makes for comforting viewing but doesn’t compare to other, much better depictions of the opioid epidemic.
One thing Pain Hustlers does is that it focuses entirely on the pharma reps, and in this case, they’re made out to be the bad guys – which they are – but the story goes much deeper than that in many of these cases. The movie tries to have it both ways, with the first two-thirds of the movie coming off as The Wolf of Wall Street-lite, only to finally start paying attention to the fallout towards the film’s end. The problem is, it comes off almost like an after-school special in that the heroes and villains are so cleanly laid out.
I suppose that happens when you make a big-budget, movie-star version of the story. They bend over backward to make sure you sympathize with Emily Blunt’s Liza Drake, who’s desperately low on funds and needs to make money to pay for a pricey operation that her daughter (Chloe Coleman) needs. It’s as if Yates, best known these days for his work directing the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films, is afraid of making Liza too challenging of a character. They try to hold her accountable in faux-documentary-style clips, but it comes out of nowhere. Chris Evans seems to be having much more fun as Blunt’s pharma rep boss, who cashes the checks between rails of blow and doesn’t care if they start pushing doctors to prescribe their cancer drug to non-cancer patients.
Blunt and Evans seem to relish the chance to dip their toes into darker fare, but a much better version of Pain Hustlers could have been made. So much has been done to make this accessible, with Andy Garcia as their boss and Brian D’Arcy James as a pill mill doctor so obviously evil they come off as cartoons. Even worse is the choice to cast Catherine O’Hara as the movie’s “cute” comic relief, with her playing Blunt’s wacky mother. It’s an odd choice, but I suppose Netflix wants this to be a big hit on the streaming service. Who knows – maybe it will be. That said, Painkiller was also a hit and was a much more grounded take on similar material.
In the end, Pain Hustlers isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a very glossy take on material that’s decidedly unsexy. Anyone who sees this thinking they’re getting a layered take on the epidemic would be better off looking elsewhere. While Blunt’s performance is sturdy as always, and Evans is having a whale of a time playing against type, it’s ultimately another just-ok Netflix film that could have been much better.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/pain-hustlers-tiff-review/