Pain Hustlers (2023) Movie Review – A poor man’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street

A poor man’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street

Netflix’s new film about the opioid crisis in the US is not just critical of big pharma but also the health system. Emily Brunt, Chris Evans, and Andy Garcia are part of an A-list cast that features in the film.

Pain Hustlers is not based on a true story but inspired by one. Insys Therapeutics is a real-life speciality company that became one of the few players indicted for off-label prescriptions. The drug mentioned in Pain Hustlers, Lorafen, is a reimagination of Subsys, which is a form of liquid fentanyl.

The Netflix film revolves around Zanna Therapeutics, founded by bereaved genius Dr Neel (Garcia) in the loving memory of his wife. His drug, Lorafen, is a powerful alternative to ineffective and toxic variants in the market. However, the company does not have the requisite money to endorse their product. The market penetration is virtually non-existent and the sales team is unmotivated. One fateful night, its CEO Pete Brenner (Evans) runs into Liza Drake (Blunt) at a strip club. 

Although Drake herself falls short of any relevant qualifications, her wit, charisma, and resilience impress Brenner, who offers her a sales job. Lo and behold, Liza strikes gold. Gradually, she starts convincing doctors to prescribe the drug to cancer patients, who can clearly see its benefits. The product is great and business is booming. Liza is able to emerge from her poverty and working-class status to become Zanna’s life force. But things start to get out of hand as Dr Neel’s ambitions grow and Liza is put in a difficult spot.

It is difficult not to give away the film’s plot with more details. The very first film that I was reminded of watching the first half hour of Pain Hustlers was The Wolf of Wall Street. Although Liza Drake isn’t as morally bankrupt, we don’t know that at first. She has a great likeness to Jordan Belfort. But the truth is that the film’s storytelling resembles Wolf. Throw in shades of The Big Short, Molly’s Game, and Jennifer Lopez’s Hustlers, you get a strong idea of what Pain Hustlers will look like.

But one has to wonder; with a palette made up of such great films, how could Pain Hustlers not work? Barring the setup which ends with Liza convincing herself she will make something of her life – like Michael Keaton’s The Founder – the creatives have no idea what they are doing. Director David Yates, who has proven pedigree with the Harry Potter films, finds it difficult to handle a film without big-budget special effects and a story sans fantastical elements. He is just not able to get a handle on the screenplay by Wells Tower, whose kitchen-sink realism only scratches the surface.

Tower drifts way too easily from his core subject matter as the film transitions into the second and third acts. The underlying social commentary is scattered and weak, not able to justify the introduction of so many themes. On many occasions, Yates is saddled with dealing with umpteen unfolding conceits, all at once due to these mishaps. On one hand, Phoebe is going through surgery and on the other, Liza is whistleblowing about Neel’s under-the-table dealings. Neither do such strands of the story have any correlation, nor are they realized to have functioning arcs.

Pain Hustlers is a chaotic mess because of these creative choices. The characterization of the story, or lack thereof, exposes the lack of clarity and direction. Emily Blunt’s portrayal is a testament to her ability to block out the noise and play a losing hand with dignity and resilience. Although Liza isn’t quite able to galvanize the story as well as Towers and Yates would have hoped for, Blunt leaves no stone unturned. She is one of the only saving graces in Pain Hustlers.

The acting is fine overall but Chris Evans is lukewarm as Brenner, picking up from his antagonist in The Gray Man. Catherine O’Hara and Andy Garcia do not have much to contribute given their limited roles. Blunt is at the centre of everything good about Pain Hustlers.

Ultimately, the film is shoddily executed, thirty minutes too long, and disproportionately ambitious for the pitfalls at the centre of its story. 


Read More: Pain Hustlers Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 6/10

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