Throughout the landscape of streaming television, the subject of the opioid crisis has risen in profile rather quickly. Series like Hulu’s Dopesick and Netflix’s Painkiller have started the process of digging into this modern problem, opening the door for narrative feature films to do the same.
The latter streaming provider/studio has seized that opportunity through director David Yates’ Pain Hustlers, a dramatized adaptation of journalist Evan Hughes’ non-fiction book The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup. While casting Emily Blunt and Chris Evans as the film’s leads was a smart move, the resulting film doesn’t use their talents as recommended.
Release Date: October 27, 2023
Directed By: David Yates
Written By: Wells Tower
Starring: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O’Hara, Chloe Coleman, Jay Duplass, Brian D’Arcy James, Amit Shah and Andy Garcia
Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Runtime: 124 minutes
In Pain Hustlers, a chance meeting between Liza (Emily Blunt) and Pete (Chris Evans) puts the former stripper on a career path that uses her intelligence to get ahead. Falling into the world of pharmaceutical reps, Liza helps build the failing company that hired her into a juggernaut almost overnight. Throughout this movie’s relatively short and brisk story, that success forces Liza to question the morality of the world that’s helped build her a better life.
Admittedly, David Yates’ latest directorial effort, from a script by writer Wells Tower, could have fallen flatter than the end result presented. If there’s anything Pain Hustlers can claim as an asset, it’s the fact that the film does glide rather quickly through its course. That brevity may be part of the problem though, as it fails to dig into any piece of its subject matter with any sort of significant depth.
Pain Hustlers is a riff on The Wolf of Wall Street, but plays on the other side of the moral table.
The audience for Pain Hustlers will more than likely be drawn to the film due to the similarities between itself and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Emily Blunt’s Liza is the wide-eyed lead that finds a financial racket that has high yields, but equally high risks. Following the path from startup to major player, the journey of the pharmaceutical company presented is just as shady and meteoric as that of Jordan Belfort and his Stratton Oakmont investment firm.
One massive difference that separates the two projects is that Pain Hustlers focuses on Emily Blunt’s character as a relative innocent. While she’s along for the ride until her moral compass is truly tested, we never really see her become corrupted by the big pharma lifestyle. Liza may enjoy her new apartment or being able to buy her mother (Catherine O’Hara) a new Mercedes, but she’s never truly shown as one of the “bad guys.” Instead, she's merely providing for her family, which includes her epileptic daughter (Chloe Coleman).
That means by the time the chickens come home to roost – and they inevitably do within the world of Pain Hustlers – we’re meant to identify with our protagonist rather than condemn her. It’s a novel spin on this sort of story, lending a little bit of freshness to the proceedings. But it fails to land in any significant manner, thanks to the lack of proper characterization for any of this story’s characters.
Its heart may be in the right place, but there’s a lack of the electricity that usually flows through tales of moral seduction such as these. So by time Liza is trying to make things right, we never truly feel like she's done something wrong.
Chris Evans is enjoying his villain era, but the rest of the movie fails to match his energy.
The post-MCU years have been good to Chris Evans, and Pain Hustlers is no exception. Our former Captain America lead has shrugged off the mantle of America’s Boy Scout, digging into anti-heroic and morally dubious roles with glee, and it’s fun to watch. Playing the sketchy Pete Brenner, Evans continues his run of villain era performances that entertain with energy and enthusiasm.
With Emily Blunt’s Liza as the lead in Pain Hustlers, that presents the problem of her performance failing to match that level of energy. This isn’t the fault of the Quiet Place star though, as a clear failure to develop Liza as a proper vessel to tell this story would trip up even the most veteran of performers.
Just as Pain Hustlers doesn’t cash in on the chemistry and star power of Chris Evans and Emily Blunt, the supporting cast also languishes in this narrative that feels a bit too streamlined. Any movie that shows Catherine O'Hara and Andy Garcia dancing together and fails to at least make a moment out of it should be prosecuted for such a waste.
Dropping us into Liza and her chaotic life after a short introduction that sets up her eventual actions, the movie gets right to throwing Blunt and Evans together on screen, starting our protagonist on her path. While the two actors working together makes for some of the better stretches presented, failing to develop either individual past stereotypes contributes to the overall toothlessness of what we witness.
Pain Hustlers provides neither an emotional punch nor an acidic indictment of big pharma, adding up to a cinematic placebo.
Pain Hustlers knows its heroes and villains all too well, and isn’t interested in trying to blur the lines all too much between the two. Sure, there are moments where Emily Blunt and Chris Evans’ characters are seen in self-reflection, made to look remorseful in their actions. Ideally both of these characters would provide the emotional punch and acidic indictment of the pharmaceutical world that this story is clearly trying to land.
Blunt’s whole third-act arc is even built on those familiar bones, as she tries to absolve herself of the nastiness that starts to crop up. Meanwhile, Evans gets to play the wild man throughout Pain Hustlers, chasing women and running from any sort of morality. Those two paths are supposed to intersect with meaning by time a picture like this is set to wrap up, but all we ever get are a couple of slight scenes that only briefly touch upon such intents.
We’ve seen plenty of darkly comedic movies with a heavy dramatic undercurrent designed to dissect the corrupt systems that have run unchecked for some time. Usually, the lesson isn’t as clearly stated, yet utterly lacking in effectiveness as it is in Pain Hustlers. That combination makes for an unremarkable cinematic placebo that’ll be flushed out of your system in a quick and painless manner. It may move fast, but it leaves no lasting trace of being there in the first place.