It’s hard to pull your eyes away from Emily Blunt in the fact-based Netflix caper Pain Hustlers, the actor at her most luminous movie star best, a rare lead role in a film where she isn’t being chased by aliens or, even worse, being forced to banter with Dwayne Johnson. As one of our finest and most versatile A-listers working today, it’s frustrating that Blunt is also one of our least utilised, until this summer’s Oppenheimer (where she tries hard to make the most out of “wife”). Her only “one for her” choice in recent years was 2020’s utterly baffling Wild Mountain Thyme, a film even she couldn’t save. Her magnetism is both blessing and curse here for director David Yates, for it gives his film a pulse it doesn’t either deserve or always know what to do with, her performance towering so very high above everything surrounding her.
For a brief period, the film tries to operate at her same level. Inspired by a New York Times article by Evan Hughes that then became a book, it’s the story of a crumbling pharmaceutical startup – a sinking ship in a strip mall – run by an eccentric has-been (Andy Garcia). Blunt plays Liza, a quick-thinking single mum who can’t quite find a way to make the most out of her intellect, resorting to body over brain to make a buck and taking a job at a strip club to make ends meet. There she meets Pete (a miscast Chris Evans) who’s both attracted to and impressed by her and drunkenly suggests she take a job back at the startup. To his surprise she not only takes him up on his offer but she starts to excel at the role, pushing rival sales reps out of the way and insisting herself into the lives of the doctors she’s trying to seduce into prescribing her product. But the product she’s pushing is a pain-killing medication containing fentanyl at a time when alarms had been raised but not entirely paid attention to and as she, and the company, start rising up the ranks, the wheels start coming off.
While those wheels are still on, the hustle is a mostly involving one, shocking us with the gnarly details of an American system that puts far too much control over people’s wellbeing in the hands of those who care very little about it. Blunt makes for a captivating Erin Brockovich-lite, sauntering into doctor’s offices flaunting her figure to those who underestimate her intelligence and showing off her rarely flexed muscle for comedy, but Yates is no Soderbergh (the overwhelming majority of his big-screen career has been dominated by Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts) and the film never once moves with the same confidence as she does. He’s also hampered by the Netflix of it all, the film looking as cheap and flat as a Kissing Booth sequel, a surreal discordance when compared to Blunt’s radiance. We’re supposed to be wrapped up in the excess of it all as the good fortune skyrockets, but it’s all too shoddy-looking for us to feel any of that secondhand thrill. Yates’s decision to splice janky black-and-white interviews with the characters is also an unforgivably bad one, an attempt at style that only shows what little the film has.
As the company descends so does the movie, the inevitable fall proving to be far less entertaining than the rise. The script, from author Wells Tower, is written with an increasingly heavy hand and while the scale of the opioid epidemic is never not utterly horrifying, the film doesn’t have the necessary jaw-drop, a missing heft that perhaps the book contained instead. Blunt remains committed to the end but even she can’t add a shine to the drab last act, the pleasure of seeing her on screen replaced with the pain of another undeserving project.
Pain Hustlers is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in cinemas on 20 October and on Netflix on 27 October