2023 has seen the resurgence of the rags-to-riches-to-rags biopic with Tetris, BlackBerry, The Beanie Bubble, and now Pain Hustlers. It wouldn’t be a problem if all of these movies were good, but only one of the five is well worth watching because it subverts the traditional biopic tropes in favor of something more energetic. Who would’ve thought a movie about the BlackBerry would be one of the most stressful and paranoiac films of the year, with anxiety on par with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer?
Pain Hustlers is finally in select theatres and will be released on Netflix on October 27. For once, it’s great to see director David Yates do something else (and I truly mean something else) than a Harry Potter title. Apart from The Tichborne Claimant and The Legend of Tarzan, Yates’ film work has only comprised the latter installments of the Harry Potter saga and the three Fantastic Beasts films. The last four Potter films are bonafide masterpieces, with The Order of the Phoenix being my favorite. But can Yates direct anything else than action and fantasy? The Legend of Tarzan was a failure, but what about Pain Hustlers? Unfortunately, he won’t be remembered for that one.
The story of Pain Hustlers
Yates seems heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, from its structure to its aesthetic choices. It’s almost as if it’s the only point of reference for his adaptation of Evan Hughes’ book of the same name; Which chronicles the rise of a pharmaceutical company that claims to sell a non-addictive and lethal variation on Fentanyl (a drug that can relieve the pain of cancer patients in less than five minutes when the product is absorbed under the tongue).
The movie opens in a documentary setting, presenting its characters, Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) and Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), through black-and-white talking heads after a criminal investigation sent them to prison. Yates then cuts to the past, where we see Liza working at a strip club. She meets Brenner and he promises her a salary that would enable her to pay all of her debts to her family and care for her epileptic daughter (Chloe Coleman), who requires a brain surgery not covered by health insurance. Liza initially believes the claims of the company and of Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) about the benefits of the drug and how it will help cancer patients, partnering with various doctors to prescribe it to patients.
However, when some patients start to get hooked on the medicine, with a few even dying of overdoses, a criminal investigation begins. But that doesn’t stop Neel and Brenner from paying off its doctors to prescribe the medication off-label because “pain is pain.” And that’s where most of the clichés begin. While not a complete disaster, Pain Hustlers can’t help but feel amazingly rudimentary in its structure, even if Yates attempts to break the formula through his black-and-white documentary tidbits, multiple freeze-frames, copious uses of slow-motion and voiceover narration from Blunt.
Too much style, very little substance
However, these stylistic choices only hurt the movie, making Pain Hustlers more convoluted than it should be. Some of the documentary parts are interesting; Particularly when it follows the patients who describe how they felt when they took the drug for the first time, only for them to enter a dark path of addiction.
An interview with the film’s “doctor” who piloted the non-addictive study adds some authenticity to the story. It makes the scientific revelation feel much rawer than if Brenner or Neel passively delivered them inside the movie’s diegesis. But the rest of the movie is far too conventional, hitting every single note it has to before the character’s eventual downfall. You have the protagonist at the lowest of lows, trusting someone who initially appears friendly and loving, only for them to realize how terrible they are when they profit off the deaths of patients.
This leads to the company’s eventual downfall and a redemption arc for Drake. These elements and voice-overs were found in Apple TV+’s The Beanie Bubble, without many stylistic changes between the two movies. I know some will scream they are different films helmed by different filmmakers, but their similarities stick out like a sore thumb, especially when they were released only three months apart. Of course, Pain Hustlers’ subject matter has a far bigger weight than Beanie Babies, but some of its harrowing elements are treated more as afterthoughts than as the main drive that leads Liza to realize how horrible Brenner and Neel are.
Emily Blunt tries her best but can’t overcome an underdeveloped script
Instead, the core character arcs are pitifully underdeveloped inside a story that consistently wobbles from one scene to the next without an emotional anchor to hold the audience in. Blunt desperately does her best with the material she’s given (minus that distracting southern accent), and there are a few scenes where Yates makes her shine, particularly in the film’s third act. But they happen so sparsely that it becomes hard to attach ourselves to the character despite the redemption arc she is seemingly given.
Minus Knives Out, Evans hasn’t had a great post-MCU career so far. He did his best in The Gray Man, but Lightyear and Ghosted weren’t special. As talented as he can be, he doesn’t seem to care about the material here, and seemingly phones it in most of the time. But Yates‘ direction and Wells Tower’s script give him barely anything to do, resulting in another underwhelming turn from a highly skillful actor.
The film would’ve been much better had Yates presented an early rivalry and increased their chemistry. But it never establishes an actual chemistry: Brenner and Drake are only going through the motions, and that’s about it. Supporting turns from Garcia and Catherine O’Hara aren’t any better for the same reason that undermines Chris Evans’ performance: the characters have nothing to do, especially O’Hara, who is consistently stuck in a cyclical arc as Liza’s mother.
Final thoughts on Pain Hustlers
When Pain Hustlers ultimately ends, the audience has learned nothing of value in the wake of this event and its impact on the opioid crisis. It was significant that its key players went to prison, but the movie never explains how the mechanics of their operation were considered criminal. Prescribing medication off-label certainly is, but what about the speaker engagements and the alleged bribes they were doing with the doctors? I say alleged because the film barely mentions “bribes” without presenting them as one of their shadiest methods of operation.
Everything in Pain Hustlers feels unimportant, and its distractingly flashy style certainly doesn’t help. It’s great to see Yates doing something else than Harry Potter, but his first real Wizarding World break doesn’t leave a good lasting impression.
My rating for this film
★★ / ♥♥
Pain Hustlers is now playing in select theatres and will be released on Netflix on October 27. Have you seen Pain Hustlers yet? Let us know your thoughts on social media @mycosmiccircus or The Cosmic Circus Discord!