Netflix’s Pain Hustlers has an interesting premise and promises to deliver a complex story, but there are structural flaws in the film’s plot and script.
Before watching Netflix’s Pain Hustlers, I was immediately very intrigued with the film, as it set out to explore the opioid crisis in the United States and the subsequent pharmaceutical scandal that followed it. The film is loosely based on real events I knew little about and with a good number of A-lister celebrities joining its cast, and I thought it could deliver on its fascinating, albeit complex premise and create a gripping crime film that would speak to today’s issues in the American health-care system. But, in reality, there was little of the dark real-life cautionary tale the movie is supposed to be inspired by.
Pain Hustlers follows Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a struggling single mother who dreams of a better life for herself and her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). After jumping from one job to another, Liza meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a sales rep for Zanna, a failing pharmaceutical start-up struggling to stay afloat in a competitive market, headed by Dr. Neel (Andy Garcia). Despite being a high school dropout, Liza manages to get a job with Zanna as a pharmaceutical sales rep for their groundbreaking drug Lonafen, a fast-acting fentanyl spray as a pain relief for late-stage cancer patients. As her sales skyrocket, for Liza, this is a way out of her socio-economic situation, even when it involves doing something illegal.
The biggest problem of this movie is in the script, which fails to highlight the stakes of the story and create compelling characters. In fact, almost all the main characters in Pain Hustlers feel one-dimensional, which makes it very hard for the audience to care about them and their future as the film goes on. Throughout the whole film, I felt like I was supposed to sympathize with Liza and her financial and family struggles, but those are not explored nearly enough for the audience to be on her side. I also thought her rise to the top of the industry and success at Zana felt too rushed as we did not get to see Liza having to adjust to this new job or really struggle with it at all.
While the beginning of Pain Hustlers is quite strong, with a black and white interview that introduces us to the context of the story, the interview style section quickly becomes very expositionary, as it is used to directly explain the most complicated and science-based elements of the plot to the audience. The film falls into a similar trap with its use of the narrator, who keeps coming in and out of the story during the whole movie. Therefore. the movie ends up telling us through voiceover some of the main events rather than actually showing them.
However, Pain Hustlers does show the obsession with money and the need to have an excessive lifestyle really well. The need to get richer and richer, no matter how much money or how many material possessions the characters have, is something that all the characters have in common and ultimately the catalysis behind the whole story. As the movie goes on, the question comes naturally: are they going to prioritize their hunger for money over people’s lives?
The last twenty minutes of Pain Hustlers are the most interesting ones of the movie, if not the only fascinating part, which hints at what the film could have been like. Liza’s trial scene is, in fact, the best sequence of the whole film, showing that the film’s premise would have been better explored as a courtroom drama, thus embracing the journalistic enquiry angle that must have been inherent in the article this film was inspired by. Similarly, this final sequence proves that the strongest part of this story is Liza’s character. As she is our way in into the story, I would have loved to see a character study on her as the movie only touches on her desire for money and respect that started all of this.
Ultimately, Pain Hustlers feels like a half-finished product, one that does manage to fully delve into the depths and complexities of the opioid epidemic in the United States, not really focusing on the human toll it cost despite this being a key element in the real-life story. It also feels like the movie underutilizes both its premise and its actors as both Evans and Blunt do not shine as they normally do in this film. Despite the promising story and great actors, the messy execution makes its narrative fall flat in the end: Pain Hustlers feels very much like an easily forgettable film.
Pain Hustlers is now available to watch on Netflix.