After making a name for himself directing four money-making Harry Potter films, British wunderkind David Yates decided it was time to leave Hogwarts magic behind and change the pace with a grittier look at the real world. The welcome result is Pain Hustlers, a real-life story with social issues about capitalism that is entertaining and funny while it makes you think, without being too earnest and serious.
PAIN HUSTLERS ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Based on the non-fiction book The Hard Sell by journalist Evan Hughes, it chronicles the glamour, excitement and depraved indifference toward idealism in a cutthroat society, centering on an ethically compromised single mom named Liza Drake (Emily Blunt, who just gets better every time) who is working as a barroom dancer when she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a smarmy drug rep for a pharmaceutical company on the verge of bankruptcy.
Sensing a driving need in Liza to succeed without the annoying drawbacks of civic duty and moral responsibility, he recruits her to peddle a new type of opioid designed to give pain relief to cancer patients. Some will undoubtedly accuse the film itself of lacking a moral center as its characters profit from pushing fentanyl, a toxic drug more powerful than heroin and very much in the headlines these days for destroying communities. But Yates is more devoted to making an audience laugh at the outrageous lengths Liza will go—from flattery to bribery—to convince doctors to embrace the painkillers her company makes. There’s a manic intensity to the whole thing, as Eliza climbs the corporate ladder and buries her reservations in alcohol and partying. Only in the third section of the film does the screenplay by Wells Tower get down to the business of rattling the chains aimed at shocking us into asking questions about how capitalism has perverted the American healthcare system.
Completely out of her league, Liza struggles to make a dent in that system before convincing doctors to favor her company’s drug, cracking the code and writing a new, unscrupulous playbook for strong-arming physicians to prescribe medication. But it feels too good to make her mark and form a crackerjack team that starts spreading the scheme from coast to coast. Her life skyrockets her life to heights she never imagined. By the time she wakes up to the harm she’s done, her personal relationship with Brenner is in grave danger of collapse, and Liza is headed for self-destruction instead of self-improvement.
Emily Blunt is so good that she elicits our sympathy by trying to provide a stable home for her daughter and help her mother (Catherine O’Hara). At the same time, we remain reluctant to face the truth that she’s helping kickstart the opioid epidemic. It’s a stunning and compassionate performance, but box-office success for Pain Hustlers remains debatable. Public reaction to the horror, when she flies close enough to the flames of her own innocence and evil to burn, will be intriguing to watch.