Emily Blunt Unmasks the Greed of Pharma in “Pain Hustlers,” and She Does a Very Good Job
When I first heard the name “Pain Hustlers,” the first thought that came to mind was the 2019 Jenifer Lopez-led drama film, “Hustlers.” I assumed it was going to be a movie about strippers on poles, drugs, and nipping criminals in the bud. Turns out I wasn’t wrong because the film really did exhibit the aforementioned characteristics.
However, the point of this review is not to compare “Hustlers” with “Pain Hustlers” even though they do share similarities that strongly make me believe that David Yates, director of “Pain Hustlers,” must have watched “Hustlers” for some sort of inspiration.
“Pain Hustlers” tells the story of how a single mother named Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) single-handedly ran pharmaceutical company Zanna to the ground. Zanna, before it became known as Zanna, was a struggling start-up on the verge of closure.
Run by widower, Dr. Neel (Andy Garcia), along with employees Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), Eric Paley (Amit Shah), and Brent (Jay Duplass), everyone, including investors, knew that Zanna was a burning ship. Liza joined this burning ship via fraud and transformed it from nothing to something; thanks to her sharp wits in peddling the company’s drug, Lonafen.
Lonafen is hailed as the miraculous drug that relieves the pain of cancer patients, but the gag is it is basically fentanyl, which isn’t illegal per se, but not legal enough for it to be a drug for cancer patients. Lonafen becomes the big thing in pharma and Liza goes from stripper to “biochemist” at Zanna, to national sales director.
It doesn’t take long before Zanna becomes the subject of a criminal investigation thanks to the fact that cancer patients are overdosing on Lonafen. This garners national attention, and the company becomes blacklisted, leading to Dr. Neel, Liza, and Pete serving jail time for their roles in essentially peddling a hard drug that “destroyed people’s lives.”
You should watch “Pain Hustlers” solely for Emily Blunt. Blunt is one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood and she delivers excellent performances onscreen. She played Liza Drake so well that to envision any other actress taking on the role would be career suicide. She pulled off the hats of devoted mother, slick saleswoman, and badass businesswoman successfully.
Really, she could sell pig dung to you, and you would buy it in a heartbeat. Even if she barely got a GED, Liza is a very smart woman and it’s no surprise that she essentially built Zanna from the ground up. It’s also no surprise that she easily persuaded doctors to prescribe an illegal amount of Lonafen to patients.
Liza was the lifeblood of “Pain Hustlers” but sadly even Blunt’s brilliance couldn’t save it. This is not to say that the film was bad−I found it quite insightful and educative−but it needed an extra “something” to make it a bit more memorable.
For one thing, it felt like Yates solely focused on Liza Drake and her journey from stripper to anti-hero that he forgot about the other characters. Peter Brenner, that is THE Chris Evans, could have been utilized a lot more in the film.
Instead of being Blunt’s co-lead, he was painted as her sidekick. We all know Evans as a superhero in the Marvel franchise and he is NEVER a sidekick. So, for him to essentially be one, even when I doubt that was the intention, was unnerving.
Secondly, Catherine O’Hara, who portrayed Liza’s mother deserved more screen time. This is coming from a biased perspective because I love watching her onscreen. She’s a phenomenal actress with decades of experience, and I felt she deserved more scenes. It would have definitely done a lot in making “Pain Hustlers” memorable.
Some present the argument that “Pain Hustlers” was predictable, but I beg to disagree. I never would’ve thought that after her cooperation with the police, Liza would still spend fifteen months in jail. I also never expected her to be a mother, talk less of a great one. She didn’t look like the mothering type with the way she spoke and acted, but like they say, never judge a book by its cover.
Questions still run through my mind and even as I write this review days after watching the film, I still can’t shake it off. After Liza’s stint in prison, she got somewhat of a happy conclusion: she was reunited with her family and helped her mother market her skincare line.
But what happened to Peter and Dr. Neel? After their prison stints, how did their lives turn out? Perhaps I’m just a curious cat who loves to know these details, but I was dying to know if Dr. Neel still lived an unbothered life in his mansion with the overprotective bodyguard or if Peter and his “forced wife” got a divorce. Granted, the black-and-white interviews showed that they were doing okay, but knowing those other little things would have sated my curiosity.
“Pain Hustlers” exposes the ills of capitalism. As long as everyone got paid, everything would be okay, right? Lives were lost due to the greed of sales reps, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. The thought alone scared me, especially when I considered the backstory of the film.
Before the first scene cuts in, there’s a warning: What You’re About to See is Inspired by Real Events. In the early 2010s, Insys Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company helmed by billionaire John Kapoor, was involved in a fentanyl scandal. This led to a detailed exposé in a 2018 New York Times article, and writer Evan Hughes authored the non-fiction book “Pain Hustlers” based on the scandal.
A perusal of the article would reveal just how low humans would go to make a profit. At the expense of people’s lives, Insys Therapeutics hosted speaker programs that were essentially sex parties to get doctors to prescribe their painkillers. Moreso, they hired attractive sales reps to seduce medical practitioners, and they engaged in other shady endeavors to get the company to the top.
All the “business tactics” that Zanna employed to be one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the USA were a mirror representation of Insys Therapeutics’ schemes. They made astronomical profit no doubt, but they also met a catastrophic and media-frenzied end when Kapoor was sentenced to five years in prison and the company went bankrupt after settling for $225 million.
If you think the characters in “Pain Hustlers” felt remorseful for their contributions to the opioid crisis, then you’re dead wrong. At the end of the day, the film is a textbook example of how capitalism rears its ugly head every single time. Even the film’s anti-hero Liza admitted that it is was it was.
The lying, scheming, and medical fraud that she partook in were all in a bid for her to get enough money and power to take care of herself and her epileptic daughter. The inhumanity of Zanna is honestly just that. Yates invites you to use your moral compass to empathize with whoever tickles your fancy, but the point of “Pain Hustlers” was to expose what goes on in pharma.
“You sell what’s in your bag,” remarked Peter nonchalantly, and indeed “Pain Hustlers” peddled its narrative with ease. Save for the little hiccups here and there, the film is perhaps more enjoyable if you solely watch it for Blunt. Actually, you have to watch it for her because it gives you no choice.
Release Date: September 11, 2023 (TIFF); October 20, 2023 (Netflix)
Runtime: 2 hours and 3 minutes
Director: David Yates
Streaming Service: Netflix
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O’Hara, Andy Garcia, Jay Duplass, Brian d’Arcy Jones, Amit Shah, Chloe Coleman, Aubrey Dollar, Michael Kosta, and Nick McNeilal