Pain Hustlers Review: Chris Evans And Emily Blunt Can't Rescue This Wolf Of Wall Street Knock-Off [TIFF 2023]

The current opioid epidemic is a scourge on the U.S. and the world, one where virtually no one has faced consequences, and a great example of American capitalist greed. It is a subject that has intrigued audiences around the world in recent years, with plenty of movies and documentaries trying to tackle the crisis, with various results. Now, Netflix wants a prestige award season film to compliment their already popular TV show "Painkiller," and the streamer tapped David Yates to make his first non "Harry Potter" and non "Tarzan" related movie in 18 years with "Pain Hustlers."

Yates' aim is to make a movie that combines the thrilling rise and fall story of "The Wolf of Wall Street" with the biting commentary and informative humor of "The Big Short," with a star-studded cast telling a fictional version of the story of the company Insys, one of the key players in the opioid crisis thanks to their fast-acting fentanyl spray, Subsys.

The problem is that Yates never commits to one side of the story, attempting various tones that never really blend well, adding cartoon characters to a rather serious story, and constantly making excuses to make the audience care about the very people the film condemns for being absolute monsters. At its best, the film is just a nice time spent watching Emily Blunt and Chris Evans being great on screen. At worst, this is a prescription for an uninspiring and even dull experience.

A bad prescription

"Pain Hustlers" follows Emily Blunt as Liza Drake, a single mom who, out of options and desperate for financial stability, becomes a pharma rep for a struggling pharmaceutical startup that makes an opioid to treat cancer patients — with a big sappy story from its founder about wanting to heal her late wife's pain but being unable to in time. In order to save the company, and lured in with the promise of a hefty commission, Drake gets involved in a racketeering scheme that includes a "speaker program" where vulnerable doctors are paid to convince other doctors to prescribe the company's drug, as the company becomes too big to fall — before, of course, falling.

Yates is mostly interested in the rising part of this rise and fall story, with the rather slow 2-hour-runtime spending much of its time on the lavish parties and footage of the characters celebrating their success. Except, while the film clearly wants to be "The Wolf of Wall Street," it fails at being either fun, wild, or gripping. 

Worse yet, there is rather little about the actual opioid crisis in "Pain Hustlers," except for quick montages of people we've met throughout the film mentioning how they were affected — mostly in passing and near the end. It fails to fully grasp what's made the opioid epidemic such a national emergency, and it fails to capture the scale of the human evil and greed at hand.

A baffling framing decive

In one of the most baffling decisions in the film, Yates chooses to frame "Pain Hustlers" as a documentary, with black-and-white interview footage thrown at the audience with zero context throughout the film. We see the various players involved all talking about Liza Drake as if building her up to be a Jordan Belfort figure. The more we hear about her from others, the more it seems like she is a criminal mastermind or a heartless, greedy monster, yet the film never truly dares to make its protagonist that morally complicated — even if they could easily have done just that, given that Liza is a completely fictional character. 

What's more, the script immediately deflates any moral complexity by also having Liza narrate most of the story, presenting her as an Erin Brokovich figure with a moral compass. Sure she may have been somewhat involved in a horrible crime, but she is also a good mother and a great worker. The script, by Wells Tower and based on a 2022 book of the same name by Evan Hughes, almost seems afraid of making Liza too messy. It makes sure we sympathize with her, showing how many bills she has to pay, and how her daughter has costly medical issues that force her into playing a part in the scheme.

Even at the height of her Jordan Belfort powers as drug queen, we are constantly reminded Liza's criminal activities are done for the right reasons, which just adds to the film's very cookie-cutter approach. In the end, watching "Pain Hustlers" is about as numbing an experience as being prescribed the drug Liza spent her career selling.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10