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film review
  • Pain Hustlers
  • Directed by David Yates
  • Written by Wells Tower, based on the book by Evan Hughes
  • Starring Emily Blunt, Chris Evans and Andy Garcia
  • Classification N/A; 122 minutes
  • Streaming on Netflix starting Oct. 27

Don’t make the same mistake of accidental timing that I endured a few weeks ago, when I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street just days ahead of David Yates’s Pain Hustlers, a try-hard Wolf wannabe so toothless that it’s all bloody gums.

Adapted from Evan Hughes’s 2022 non-fiction book, Yates’s film follows single Florida mom Liza (Emily Blunt) who finds herself smack in the middle of the opioid crisis when she lands a job pushing pills for a struggling pharmaceutical company. With nothing but her moxie and a few tight dresses, Liza turns the company’s fortunes around in a near-instant, mentored by her lovably slimy (but really just slimy) boss Pete (Chris Evans) and rewarded amply by her company’s shady founder, Dr. Jack (Andy Garcia).

As Dr. Jack’s company grows fat and rich off the untenable pain of others – the company’s criminal scheme revolves around lining the pockets of doctors, who then prescribe certain pills to patients – Liza and her fellow salespeople get lost in a world of 1 per cent excess. There are lavish oceanfront mansions and raucous anything-goes parties, sports cars and strippers – the typical markers of all-American success.

The trouble is that Yates (best known for his Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films) is entirely ill-suited to capturing the sticky, sexy sleaze of Liza and her fellow reprobates. So often, the film aims for a kind of dizzying greed-is-good energy, the obvious point being that Liza and Pete are as addicted to the easy cash as poor folk are to their prescriptions. But there is no guts to Pain Hustlers’ try-hard gonzo-ness, resulting in a sub-Scorsese style that both underlines and loses its point.

Blunt is, as always, highly watchable even when fed the most derivative lines and forced to enact the most unbelievable of character choices. Liza’s turn toward the light during the film’s third act isn’t so much a surprise – Pain Hustlers is not the kind of movie in which evil triumphs without a lecture – as it is incoherently telegraphed, the result of a screenplay that assumes it can turn on a dime without paying the audience a thing. And the less said about the actress’s shaky Central Florida accent, the better.

Yet Blunt remains miles ahead of Evans, who between this project and last year’s The Gray Man puts a final rusty nail to the idea that the actor can believably play a villain. Sporting as bad an accent as his co-star (New Jersey-ish, in his case), Evans peacocks throughout the film without realizing that such bravado is earned by presence and charisma, not automatically awarded by sporting spotty facial hair.

One of a dozen or so opioid-crisis movies and TV series to have arrived on screens over the past two years, Pain Hustlers has nothing new to say about the human-made tragedy that hasn’t been either more carefully (Dopesick) or artfully (Dead Ringers) explored elsewhere. But given that Hollywood cannot seem to kick an addiction until it hits rock bottom, perhaps audiences should be thankful that Yates’s film might just kill the overdone sub-genre dead.

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