Emily Blunt and Chris Evans push fentanyl in so-so Pain Hustlers
Anyone who’s paid attention to the news in the past decade knows the scourge that fentanyl has become in the United States, with a recent study determining that the drug now accounts for over half the overdose deaths in the U.S., almost 43,000 in 2020 alone. But while the drug is now dangerous because it’s laced in other street drugs like heroin, the roots of the crisis started in the pharmaceutical world, as detailed in the new Netflix film, Pain Hustlers.
Set in 2011 and based on a true story, the film focuses on a fictional company called Zanna Therapeutics, which sells the fentanyl-based drug, Lonafen. Owned by Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia), the company is on the verge of bankruptcy until one of its top sales reps, Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), decides to hire Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a down-on-her-luck single mom who most recently worked at a strip club.
Liza’s panache and Pete’s willingness to bend the rules soon has them convincing people like Dr. Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James) to start prescribing Lonafen to his cancer patients, the only people approved by the FDA to receive the medication. Naturally, it’s not long before greed has everyone at Zanna crossing even more ethical and legal lines, and convincing doctors to prescribe the drug “off-label” to non-cancer patients.
Directed by David Yates and written by Wells Tower from the book by Evan Hughes, the film has the familiar structure of a lot of boom-and-bust companies: 1) The failing company finds unexpected success. 2) That success goes to the heads of most of those involved, leading them to do anything in their power to maintain that success. 3) Those efforts result in either significant legal or financial straits, causing their downfall.
While there’s nothing all that surprising about what happens in general in the story, the personal details help make it interesting. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Liza, who tells herself that she’s working for Zanna for all the right reasons, to help people in pain and to help her and her daughter, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman), escape poverty. But the faster success comes, the more she has to compromise her values and the less she can make that claim.
Yates also occasionally uses a gimmick of characters talking to the camera in faux interviews as if they were in a documentary. Unfortunately, the placement of these sequences is haphazard at best, and the information gleaned from the confessionals doesn’t add much to the story as a whole. He might have been better off trying to go a little deeper into the lives of those affected by the malfeasance instead of giving more time to those perpetrating it.
When the story falters, the level of acting in the film picks it up for the most part. Blunt makes for an empathetic lead, even when she’s doing questionable things. Evans has had tough sledding since leaving the Marvel world, and even though he’s not fantastic here, he has some decent moments. Catherine O’Hara pops up as Liza’s mom and also puts in nice work.
Pain Hustlers could have used more depth and originality than it has, but it still deserves credit for shining a light on a problem that’s only gotten worse since the time depicted in the film. Addiction can come from many places, but this film shows that craven actions by pharmaceutical companies and doctors only exacerbated the problem.
Pain Hustlers debuts on Netflix on October 27.