Movies like Pain Hustlers are the worst kind of cinematic tripe. One shouldn’t go to movies for factual reporting, but one should go for some baseline of entertainment. The latest from David Yates provides neither.
Inspired by Evan Hughes’s New York Times Magazine article, later turned into a book, “Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup,” originally titled “The Hard Sell,” plays fast and loose with facts. This is not a huge deal, except the film does so for a genuine and simple-minded reason: So the audience can have someone to relate to.
Yates and screenwriter Wells Tower fabricate characters and drama to make unsympathetic characters more sympathetic and effectively defanging what might have been a scathing satire of American greed. But no, they want us to relate to these ghouls.
Emily Blunt’s Liza Drake is not a real person. She is an amalgamation of people who defrauded doctors and the American public and got rich doing it. Liza is not real, and neither is her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Colman), who Yates uses to make us feel sorry for her by giving her health problems. Liza is a down-on-her-luck single mom who couldn’t help but scheme and lie along with her co-workers to push a knowingly addictive drug onto the market because, don’t you know, it sucks being poor.
Yates and Tower have taken one of the great frauds perpetrated on the public and turned it into a girlboss story, and it’s precisely as sniveling and grating as it sounds. Worse is how Yates tries to mimic other filmmakers who have come before him, from Adam MacKay to Martin Scorsese, in his attempt to give Pain Hustlers style and energy.
But it lacks the rage and audacity of excess because it’s so busy trying to be clever and empathetic that it completely misses the cruelty of the not-so-good folks at Zanna. Heck, Yates, and Tower are such cowards they don’t even discuss the side effects of Fentanyl, the main ingredient in the painkiller they’re pushing. Because to do so would be far too damning a conversation to have. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to get away with the flimsy narrative that Liza’s not a bad person; she was just blinded by the American dream and was led astray by her ambitions. Poor made-up Liza, the lone voice of reason, knows the evil they do and yet wants to wait until they’ve made a little more money before bringing the company into compliance.
But hey, she felt terrible about it!
To be fair to Yates, he understands, to a point, that capitalism is the problem. Chris Evans’ Pete is the avatar for greed at any cost, the devil on Liza’s shoulder. Except there’s no angel. But Yates is too busy making Liza the flawed paragon of virtue. Early on, we see a scene with Liza and her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman), as Liza argues with the principal not to expel her daughter for starting a fire. It becomes immediately apparent that Liza is the type of person who memorizes the rules and becomes obsessively pedantic about them to avoid paying any consequences.
It might be the most honest scene in the movie. Or it would be if Liza wasn’t sanded down to the stereotypical struggling single mom by the twenty-minute mark.
Tower attempts to structure as a way to draw attention to the meta-narrative of this is only inspired by actual events. In an attempt to play with reality and to give a winking nod that this is a movie based on an article turned book, Pain Hustlers periodically flashes to the characters talking to a camera. Filmed in black and white, these scenes play like a documentary, albeit a cheap and dull one. But these scenes don’t highlight inconsistencies so much as serve as stilted information dumps.
Not to mention, neither Yeates nor Tower commit to the structure. At one point, it feels they have given up using this gimmick, only to pick it up again towards the end. A habit indicative of how lazy Pain Hustlers is, it doesn’t commit to anything. Liza’s sister, the lone voice of moral concern, is heard at the movie’s beginning but is promptly forgotten once Liza’s star rises.
George Richmond’s camera and Mark Day’s editing start lively, but it soon becomes apparent it’s all a ruse. People accuse movies of being style over substance, but that’s untrue. The style is the substance. The style comes from either the director or the story, but it is vital to a movie. Pain Hustlers has neither because it is informed by nothing but the filmmaker’s desire to tell the least offensive story possible.
Yates doesn’t have a vision and, or worse, even a point of view. Richmond’s lens, though lively, and Day’s dynamic editing feel hollow, especially as the film trundles along with all the opening panache, giving way to a sort of ho-hum plateau. Pain Hustlers explodes out of the starting gate with manic energy but quickly fizzles out because it’s not coming from anywhere. It’s merely Yates trying to get your attention. But since he’s an empty shirt of a filmmaker, interest wains because he’s too busy trying to make us feel sorry for Liza, Pete, Phoebe, and her mother, Jackie (Catherine O’Hara).
What little life in the film there is comes from Andy Garcia’s Dr. Neel. Neel is an oddball who evolves into eccentric once Lonafen sales take off. Garcia plays Neel with an enigmatic charm, a con man who always seems oblivious to the lies he sells. Had Yates or Tower been better storytellers, they could have found some use for him besides comic relief.
Evans’ Pete also gets short shrift. Pain Hustlers uses Blunt’s Liza as the sole window into the proceedings. The problem is that Liza is an unreliable narrator-among other things. But Yates doesn’t seem to understand this and thus has her as the heroine who must overcome the men around her and do the right thing….eventually.
Pain Hustlers is a shallow grift of a movie. A copy-paste of other films, it lacks outrage and any observation about anything that transpires during the runtime. Richmond’s lens occasionally captures a neat shot, but it always feels too little too late.
Even the film’s attitude toward sex work seems insincere. Blunt’s Liza starts as a stripper and, soon after getting hired by Pete, hires her fellow dancers at the company. During one of the interviews, they ask the dancer why she wants the job, and she says, “So, I can stop lying to my kids about what I do for a living.”
Pete and Liza share a sympathetic look because sex work is acceptable for thee but not for ye. Or something stupid like that. Liza’s view on sex work is never known; after all, Liza never seemed ashamed of her work. But then again, that would require the characters of Pain Hustlers to have a point of view, something Yates and Tower can’t get near for fear of saying something about anything. A better movie would have made the connection that Liza’s job as a sex worker was more honest than her job as a Pharma rep and more moral.
I’m a little peeved at Pain Hustlers, if for no other reason than that it wastes the Canadian National Treasure of Catherine O’Hara. O’Hara isn’t given a lot, but she does what she can with it. Her bit with the popcorn towers is one of the few laughs in the movie.
David Yates has made many popular movies but has yet to make a good one. Maybe one day, he will. It hasn’t happened yet, but hope springs eternal.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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