Movie Review: Pain Hustlers

David Yates has directed eight films in the last fifteen years, seven of which were part of the Harry Potter franchise. Yates follows in the footsteps of filmmakers such as Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, and Mike Newell, producing a satisfactory finale to the story of The Boy Who Lived and the unremarkable Fantastic Beasts series.

A recurring theme in Pain Hustlers, Yates’ first non-Harry Potter picture since 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan, is the concept of a person selling what’s in their bag—basically, you sell what you know. If you can get by by reading people, that’s a fantastic way to start, or you could sell Avon or knives door-to-door. But if Pain Hustlers demonstrates anything about Yates, it’s that he lacks the capacity to make his first post-Harry Potter film work.

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Pain Hustlers is partially based on Evan Hughes’ book of the same name, with a screenplay by Wells Tower, and revolves around a pharmaceutical firm in Florida on the verge of bankruptcy. That is until they recruit Liza Drake (Emily Blunt). Liza has had a difficult life, living in her sister’s garage with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) and daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). However, after being evicted from the garage and losing her job as a dancer, she contacts Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a pharma sales representative she met at the club, who offers her a position at his failing firm, Zanna Pharmaceuticals.

Liza’s ability to read people leads her to steer physicians away from outdated scripts and towards Zanna’s new cancer medicine, Lonafen. Her influence, attention, and bribery transform Dr. Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James) from a balding, PT Cruiser-driving doctor working in a strip mall into a sought-after prescription of Lonafen. Zanna, managed by billionaire CEO Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garca), has become a great success in only a few short months, which, as we know from these sorts of films, can only lead to further greed and the final catastrophe.

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Screenshot 60Yates portrays Pain Hustlers as a more tame version of The Wolf of Wall Street, such as when Liza and Pete recruit former strippers to convert more physicians to Lonafen. However, the film’s lone illustration of this career’s ‘party’ mindset is incredibly tame, ranging from the squad leaping into the pool while wearing their clothing (!) to one person peeing in a washbasin (!!!).

What a weird moment! It’s so intense, so edgy! Yates also doesn’t appear to know how to tackle this tale, interspersing false interviews with our actors as if they’re part of some implicit documentary about this time period that is little more than a cheap means of imparting information. If that isn’t enough, Blunt gives needless narration throughout the film that largely describes what the spectator can easily see.

It’s also evident that Pain Hustlers isn’t sure what kind of tone it wants to try. It aspires to be the sort of crime dramedy that The Wolf of Wall Street was, but the absurdity and over-the-top character of O’Hara’s Jackie and Garca’s Jack suggests the remains of a much larger comedy. But this is also a film that wishes to emphasise the greed and selfishness that may lead individuals to choose to profit from unsafe drugs, patient lives to be damned—while still making us care about the primary character who produced these troubles in the first place.

Liza is said to be a wonderful person, but what in the film genuinely represents that? Pain Hustlers appears to want to have fun while simultaneously making a scathing indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, yet the tone makes this critique ineffective.

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Tower, at the very least, does a good job with these fictitious characters based on historical events, notably Blunt’s Liza. While Pain Hustlers attempts to bring down the major corporations that contributed to the opioid crisis (something far better movies and TV shows has already done), it almost works better as a condemnation of our economic system, as medical bills for life-changing operations cannot be paid and families are trapped living in apartments, it’s no surprise someone like Liza would go to such lengths simply to get by.

Liza is a great incarnation of this desperation, and Blunt does an excellent job of bringing these issues to the forefront while also getting a chance to portray a part that is a little more grey.

Screenshot 61However, the same cannot be said about the rest of the cast. Evans is little more than the jerk who puts everything in motion and then lets avarice take over when Liza sees the folly of their ways. It’s a terrible waste of Evans, who has previously excelled in playing scumbags. Garca appears to be having fun in a little off-the-rails performance, and while O’Hara is excellent as always, her character becomes lost as the tale picks up pace.

There have been plenty of documentaries that have asserted that greed, for want of a better word, is beneficial, and Pain Hustlers—which focuses on the pharmaceutical firms at the root of the opioid crisis—adds nothing new to the argument. Yates’ Pain Hustlers is part boisterous dramedy, part half-assed critique, and wholly a disappointing film with obvious and uninspired ideas. Yates has spent fifteen years in the Harry Potter trenches and has yet to uncover the magic that will make this exciting or meaningful.

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