Film Review – Pain Hustlers
Pain Hustlers (2023) is a good example of a movie unsure of what kind of story it wants to tell. It starts off as a rags-to-riches tale, in which a determined character does whatever they have to in order to move up the economic ladder. We see them working their way from dingy motels to fancy mansions, becoming obsessed with their own success. They take on a “Me vs. The World,” persona, where they will not take “No” for an answer, and anything that stands in their way is merely a temporary distraction. But somewhere along the line, things change. Instead of showcasing terrible people doing terrible things, the film asks us to sympathize with those that cheat the system for their own benefit. The “anti-hero” becomes the “hero,” where their conscience suddenly reminds them that, oh yeah, what they’re doing might actually be bad. This imbalance never works itself out.
When it comes to the opioid epidemic, the lines between right and wrong are pretty well established. Pharmaceutical companies sold pain killers to doctors to be prescribed to their patients, who in turn become addicted, which lead to an increasing demand. Soon, drugs such as oxycodone and fentanyl were being prescribed for medical conditions that did not warrant them. Drugs that were meant for cancer were being given to people with completely different issues. “Pain is Pain,” was the slogan, suggesting that these miracle drugs should be given out for any kind of problem, even if it was “off brand.” The companies and the doctors they contracted with made millions hand over fist, while leaving a public ravaged by addiction, bloated medical bills, and death.
This is the world we find Liza Drake (Emily Blunt). Liza is a dropout who works as an exotic dancer while raising her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) as a single mother. Times are tough for Liza, after being kicked out of her sister’s garage and moving into a sketchy motel. In desperation, she reaches out to Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) whom she met while dancing. Pete is a salesman at a failing pharmaceutical company in Florida, led by quirky CEO Dr. Neel (Andy Garcia). Despite lacking a medical degree and experience in the field, Liza’s hard work turns her and the company into an overnight success. Liza becomes a power player – rocking fancy suits, driving expensive cars, and sending her kid to a prestigious school. She understands how to manipulate the game, realizing that doctors are just as susceptible to sex and greed as anyone else. She uses this knowledge to hire a staff unqualified for the job, including her own mother (Catherine O’Hara).
But the stars that burn the brightest are the ones that flame out the fastest, and that is where Pain Hustlers suffers the most. Director David Yates (with screenwriter Wells Tower) adapt Evan Hughes’ book with a lot of energy. We see this especially in the scenes where Liza and Pete bask in the enormity of their wealth. George Richmond’s cinematography places Liza in center screen, tracking along with her as she moves through one lavish party after the next, like a ring leader surveying the circus they have created. But the imagery shown and the themes conveyed lack consistency. This becomes apparent once the tables turn and Liza confronts the consequences of her shady dealings. The fact that she would develop guilt for the things she has done means little when she still reaps the rewards. How much sympathy does she deserve when she still wears designer clothes and lives in a home many of us would never step foot in during our lifetimes? The narrative is divided by several black and white, documentary-like interviews where characters provide their thoughts over what has happened. I suppose these are meant to resemble a confessional, but like everything else we see, it’s all style with little substance.
In subject matter, tone, and execution, the film will draw comparisons to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Both feature questionable characters making a fortune off the backs of unsuspecting victims – one centered around the stock market and the other based in the medical and drug arena. But the main difference is that Martin Scorsese did not let up in skewering his subject. He depicts them in all of their toxicity and selfishness. The writing and direction of Pain Hustlers makes the grievous mistake of trying to find a beating heart amongst the heartless. Liza turns into a boss in her own right, leading company meetings with chants about making it big. But to then switch things around and paint her as some beacon of morality feels disingenuous. The Wolf of Wall Street stuck to its guns by revealing the ugliness of capitalism. Pain Hustlers loses its way by asking us to side with the criminals.
The questionable morality here is not due to its star. Emily Blunt does the best she can with the character, giving Liza depth and toughness through her physical performance. She is one of the few reasons to give this a watch. But even her best efforts can’t save a story this flimsy. Is Liza’s journey meant to be a satire? A character study? Are we supposed to pity her, love her, or hate her? She seems to exist in the center of a narrative that has little to say about the opioid issue, pharmaceutical companies, or the health industry. Supporting characters feel like your standard types, with little nuance or personality. This is especially true for Chris Evans as Pete Brenner. Ever since he left the role of Captain America, Evans has made a concerted effort to shed his All-American Good Guy screen persona. With the exception of Knives Out (2019), Evans’ choices in projects have been less than stellar. Pain Hustlers is yet another example of him wasting his charm on an underwritten character. There is nothing of interest coming from Pete – he brings little to the table outside of a mentor role for Liza.
Pain Hustlers is all gloss – a movie that looks like it is about something important but lacking the insight to get there. We come away remembering its flashiness and little else. The opioid crisis is a serious one, and is still an ongoing problem today. It deserves to be covered and explored with care and sensitivity. Sadly, this film does not do that.