Netflix’s Pain Hustlers is a largely fictionalized tale of a very real-world and rather eye-opening business: selling an easy fix for what ails us, even if it leads to addiction and death.
Although names have been changed and characters invented (though inspired for some by actual cases and people), the original source material is all too real. Based on a New York Times article by Evan Hughes and then developed as Hughes was turning his research into the book The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Start-Up, screenwriter Wells Tower has fashioned a riveting if disturbing scenario brought to life by director David Yates, who was looking for a less fantastical tale to tell other than the Harry Potter movies he was directing. He found it, and also his way in to what might be quite a shocking exposé of just how far into a grift some in big pharma business and the medical community may go in order to make a buck at the expense of our own well-being and health. It has its world premiere tonight at the Toronto Film Festival.
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The story is set around the fictional pharmaceutical company Zanna, founded by Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) who developed a cancer pain-reducing drug called Lonafen to help his dying wife in her final weeks. It is now a struggling business, desperate to carve out a large market share in the ever-competitive world of drugs that can make a breakthrough, even if they are opioids that can include such deadly ingredients as fentanyl for the fast but fleeting fix. Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a fast-talking, highly energized, morally compromised Zanna executive, is looking for a magic elixer to drive sales when he meets a single mother, Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), working at a strip club to pay rising medical bills for her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman), who has a form of epilepsy.
One thing leads to another and he convinces the Liza to apply for a job at Zanna where she could go on the road and try to sell Lonafen to doctors who would then write prescriptions for it. That is the name of this game: It has to have “credibility” by real doctors who can help it move in the marketplace. Completely padding her résumé with impressive but fake credentials, Neel approves her (not even bothering to read the made-up CV) for a job, one where she is promised by Brenner that she can make tons of money if she can deliver quickly.
After discovering it isn’t all that easy, Liza tries one last mark, a doctor she knows, Dr. Lydell (Brian D’Arcy James), whose office is in a small strip mall. Somehow she seduces him into writing a prescription for a cancer-ridden patient who sees temporary results. Bingo. This is followed by an increasing number of similar instances, as well as a key component of getting doctors involved in speaker programs and events to further spread the word. Eventually, Liza brings her mother Jackie (Catherine O’Hara) into the game as well as another group of attractive, if unqualified, women to seal the deals. Brenner lures her even more into a racketeering plan that in no time has both she and Brenner becoming rising stars and apples in the eye of the shady boss, much to the disgust of competitive but loser marketing head (a funny Jay Duplass). Zanna’s business goes through the roof and all is good until….
Pain Hustlers follows the trajectory structrually of many recent business-based dramas like BlackBerry, The Beanie Bubble, Tetris and another recent TIFF debut this week Dumb Money, with the idea that what goes up must come down. Liza soon learns that providing a quick fix for pain, no matter how dangerous, isn’t necessarily also the quick fix for a successful career. Things get complicated, and that is when the lighter tone of the first half takes a fascinating turn.
The main attraction here are the stars who deliver forcefully. Blunt, one of the best actresses around period, is again completely convincing and grabs our empathy even as we witness this all going out of her control. Evans is also great in a sleazy, sort of manic role he sinks his teeth into so well. Garcia of course is one of the best, and in a bad-boss turn here he plays it perfectly, a smooth operator out for himself. Broadway star James is excellent as the doctor who gets in too deep, while O’Hara also has her moments as the aging mother who still can turn on the sex appeal when it counts. Amit Shah nicely plays another key Zanna exec.
Yates keeps this thing humming along but doesn’t take his eye off the message: beware consumers because there is no such thing as an instant cure even if your doctor writes you the prescription for it. The method behind the sale is a startling hustle all too real, even if this particular story is not. It is enough to make you think hard the next time you head to the pharmacy.
Producers are Lawrence Grey and Yates.
Title: Pain Hustlers
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release Date: October 20, 2023 (limited theatrical); October 27, 2023 (streaming)
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: Wells Tower
Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Catherine O’Hara, Chloe Coleman, Jay Duplass, Brian D’Arcy James, Amit Shah, Aubrey Dollar, Willie Raysor
Running time: 2 hr 2 min
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