David Yates’ Pain Hustlers is Tonally Muddled and Annoyingly Bereft of Any Complexity

“We agreed at the outset we didn’t want to make an earnest drama,” says director David Yates of his latest film Pain Hustlers. It’s a line that leads one to wonder who is “We?” Is “We” just a bunch of executives in a meeting wondering what crisis they can give the Adam McKay treatment to? Is it just a group of people thinking “The opioid crisis, how can we The Wolf of Wallstreet that?” Instead of people losing everything from some penny stock grifter rising through the ranks, why not make a dramady about pharmaceutical companies and off-label scripts which has resulted in many thousands of deaths, because wow that was wild?

Congratulations David Yates and whoever “We” turned out to be. You’ve done it. You’ve hit an algorithm somewhere of human suffering and plundered it for what you hoped was comedy gold with a touch of pathos. Except congratulations aren’t in order. As someone who directed two excellent British television series about corruption and social issues State of Play (later adapted into a film starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck) and Sex Traffic, plus one television film The Girl in the Café about a civil servant attending a G8 conference, one would hope Yates would know better. Alas, no.

Adapting Evan Hughes’ book with a script by Wells Tower Pain Hustlers is a fictionalised account of the downfall of Insys Therapeutics and John Kapoor, although much of what goes on in endemic in the pharmaceutical industry. Pain Hustlers invents an original character, Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) a smart but desperate single mother trying to care for her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) who is working as a stripper in a Florida bar when she meets and “reads” Zanna Therapeutics salesman, Pete Brenner (Chris Evans). Living in her sister’s garage with her mother Jackie (Catherine O’Hara) she’s barely holding on. She’s a smart operator and can convince people of almost anything, but life has rarely been kind.

Circumstances including Phoebe’s health which requires an expensive operation to remove clusters on her brain causing seizures and being kicked out of her sister’s garage to live in a cheap motel convince Eliza that she should take Pete’s drunken offer to work for his company seriously. A doctored resume by Pete (with the inclusion of PhD scrawled in ink) and a whirlwind interview with Doctor Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) starts Liza down the path of trying to get one doctor to write a script for Lonafen, a sublingual fentanyl spray for stage four cancer patients. A path that leads her to the debauchery of not-quite-legal (read highly illegal) ‘Speaker Programs’ and script kickbacks for prescribing doctors to eventually becoming a whistleblower.

Eliza has always been poor. She didn’t finish high school. Her ex-husband remarried and took her Savannah restaurant. Her mother, Jackie, was more known for her boozy absences and many marriages rather than child rearing. Eliza’s fear is that she will never be safe and the only thing that can provide safety is money. “I will not give up on myself, I will not give up on my dreams, I will make my life count,” she says to herself in the dark. It isn’t a stretch to believe that Eliza goes along to get along. The slippery slope of driving 67-miles in a 65-mile zone, as Pete puts it to her, soon leads to her watching in horror as the hustle begins taking a very real toll on people’s lives.

Besides Liza and Phoebe all the other characters are thinly sketched portraits of greed, desperation, and insanity. Brian d’Arcy James plays strip mall doctor Nate Lyell, who runs the Lakeland Pain Clinic and is referred to as the “Nine million dollar man” by Pete because of the value their rival company Praxiom get from his writing scripts for their Fentanyl lollipop. He’s lonely, going through a divorce, drives a cheap car, has a terrible combover. The only attention he receives is through the Praxiom drug reps and their gifts. As soon as Eliza gets him to start writing scripts for Lonafen the money starts pouring in with a huge uptick in clients. Soon he has a new head of hair, leather pants and a sportscar. He wants to prescribe Lonafen off-label, he doesn’t want the gravy train to stop.

Andy Garcia’s Jack Neel is the untouchable man – both literally and figuratively. A germphobe billionaire investor who developed Lonafen when his wife was dying from cancer, he seems at first a sympathetic character, but he is the puppet master pulling the invisible strings. It must be said Garcia seems to truly relish the role.

Then there’s Chris Evans’ Pete Banner. A handsome slimeball with zero conscience as long as he can crush his competition (at first Jay Duplass as rival executive Larkin) then later absolutely anyone who steps in his path. In another world he would be an inveterate gambler, in the pharmaceutical industry he’s a COO.

Because Yates has no idea what tone to settle on, the big comic swings miss, and the heartfelt moments feel manufactured. As manufactured as the faux documentary book-ending of the piece. Desperate people addicted to opioids become grist for a Day of the Dead styled zombie joke. Accounts of how Lonafen is destroying the life of Matt (Willie Raysor) a cancer patient in remission who became addicted is played half as a comic bit about how feeling high feels good and makes working in retail easier, until his teeth begin to fall out and he’s an overdose statistic. People filmed in black and white holding up photographs of people they’ve lost to opioid related deaths becomes empty sentiment instead of the gut punch moment of “Look what these monsters did.”

Pain is an industry and anyone who suffers any kind of chronic or pain knows how seeking relief is ultimately a short-term Band-Aid over a long-term issue. Acute pain is easier to deal with because it isn’t ongoing. No one should have to suffer, but medicine hasn’t yet found the “fix all” solution because at this stage there just isn’t one. It’s called the Opioid crisis for a reason. People die and no-one is prepared to take the blame (see the Sackler family as an example). Corporations get slaps on the wrists or declare bankruptcy in the case of Purdue Pharma. Very few companies see anything but sanctions and warnings. The axiom “comedy equals tragedy plus time” doesn’t apply when no time has passed.

Beyond the ethics of making a dramatic comedy about the opioid crisis, judging Pain Hustlers purely as a piece of cinema leads to inspecting mediocrity in most aspects of the work. Pain Hustlers is flashy and annoyingly bereft of any complexity. Yates and his collaborators are wading in the kiddie pool with brightly coloured floaties and even then, they’ve gone way beyond their depth.  

Director: David Yates

Cast: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O’Hara

Writer: Wells Tower, (Based on Pain Hustlers by Evan Hughes)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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