Pain Hustlers – A Pharmaceutical Drama: Should We Take This Pill or Spit it Out?

MOVIE REVIEW – The new film from the director of the Harry Potter films, Pain Hustlers, aims to be a bold cross between the financial depravity of the Wall Street wolf and the social activism of Erin Brockovich. Produced by Netflix, the film looks at the opioid crisis through the lens of an entertaining yet profound drama. But caught between the conflicting goals of the story, it doesn’t quite capture either the harsh dynamics of the medical sales world or the satisfaction of social justice.



How do you make an entertaining satire about the opiate crisis? Is it even possible? And is it ethical? Director David Yates (returning after the Harry Potter series), screenwriter Wells Tower, star Emily Blunt and Netflix join forces to answer these questions in this film. The goal is to create a fast-paced pharmaceutical exposé docudrama combined with a Scorsese-esque true story crime drama. This formula works to a certain extent. Emily Blunt’s strong performance tries to carry the movie, which is both entertaining and thought-provoking, even if the story elements and conflicts sometimes contradict each other.


MOZI HÍREK - Chris Evans és Emily Blunt Netflix-filmjét, A fájdalom ügynökeit egy valós opioid-botrány ihlette. A Lonafen nevű gyógyszer áll a középpontjában. VIGYÁZAT: a cikk spoilereket tartalmaz a filmből!


Between Erin Brockovich and Jordan Belfort


The script was inspired by Evan Hughes’ 2018 New York Times article and forthcoming book, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a small pharmaceutical company in the 2010s by bribing doctors to prescribe a powerful fentanyl-based opioid painkiller called Subsys. Pain Hustlers, however, is more fictional; Tower renames the characters and moves the events from Arizona to Florida, allowing Yates to show the blight and environmental desolation of trailer parks. One of the film’s central characters is Liza Drake (Blunt), a single mother struggling financially. For Liza, her position selling a drug similar to Subsys offers an opportunity for economic recovery, but also plunges her into a moral quagmire.

Liza is a strong character, passionate, cunning and compassionate, not afraid to play a few dirty tricks, especially when her daughter’s life is on the line. The character is inspired by Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 legal drama about a working-class woman’s fight against a corporation that poisons people at the bottom of the food chain. But Liza also resembles the character of Jordan Belfort – played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, one of the most influential films in sales culture. Like Belfort, Liza’s character is meant to give viewers a glimpse into this troubled world.



First, she took off her clothes, then she put on a marketing suit


Liza starts working at a strip club, where she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a sales representative for a pharmaceutical start-up called Zanna. The company is testing a fast-acting formulation of fentanyl that users can spray under their tongues, called Lonafen in the movie. Pete recognizes Liza’s intuitive ability to give people exactly what they want and offers her a job.

Liza accepts, in part because of the medical bills that have piled up for her daughter’s treatment for a strange brain tumor. Pete immediately “enhances” Liza’s resume with fake medical credentials and presents it to Zanna’s eccentric founder, Jack Neel (Andy García). As he revises Liza’s resume, Pete scribbles the letters “PHD” in the corner of the paper. Liza protests that she didn’t even finish high school, but it turns out that’s exactly what Zanna is looking for in its salespeople: “poor, hungry, and stupid.”

Pete is not wrong about two things, but he is definitely wrong about Liza not being stupid. Her resourcefulness and charm are a perfect match for Pete’s ruthlessness. She quickly rises through the ranks and saves the company by convincing Pete to create a cheaper version of the “speaker programs” that other pharmaceutical companies use to recruit doctors to prescribe their products. On these champagne-fueled days, key doctors are paid to speak to their peers and customers. It’s a disguised form of bribery that operates in a legal gray area; Pete says it’s worth the risk because the guilty companies face only a small fine if they get caught.



Blunt is excellent, Evans less so


But large-scale bribery is certainly not sustainable in the long run. During the time period of The Pain Hustlers, fentanyl-based drugs were only legally approved for pain relief in late-stage cancer patients, as the dangerously addictive nature of the drugs was not a primary concern. But Neel has growth plans for the company. That means finding new markets, which means convincing doctors to prescribe these powerful opioids to patients who don’t need them. Overdoses skyrocket and Liza, now a wealthy marketing executive, struggles with a deepening mental crisis.

The script of Pain Hustlers often asks Blunt to change her approach to acting, and it’s a testament to her charisma and superb acting skills that she handles it so smoothly. It’s as much a pleasure to watch her first appearance in a strip club, using her erotic allure, as it is to watch her exchange ideas with her mother (Catherine O’Hara) in a seedy motel room, or to watch her purposefully and cunningly convince her pharmaceutical marketing colleagues of a new gimmick, and ultimately have a moral awakening.

Evans is seen in a different role than the heroic Captain America, a ruthless, amoral role that doesn’t really suit him. He played a similar character in The Ambush, but Pain Hustlers is too brash for Evans, who mostly uses more subtle acting devices. His best scenes with Blunt are those in which Pete tries to approach Liza with romantic intentions, either in a deliberately jerky, macho style or cautiously, and Liza casually rejects him.

The third major player is Andy Garcia, who has given better performances in the past. In this movie, he plays an arrogant corporate executive who at times goes off the deep end and at other times tries to be sympathetic or friendly, but somehow his character doesn’t quite add up.



At times wittily satirical, at times too didactic


Pain Hustlers is at times too explicit and didactic in tone. It does not delve deeply enough into the unethical practices of pharmaceutical companies, nor does it approach the opioid crisis with sufficient seriousness. Toward the end of the film, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and fails to fully unravel the complexity of the characters.

Despite its significant flaws, Pain Hustlers is an important film that takes a satirical tone and raises important questions about the pharmaceutical industry and its impact on society. The film focuses on the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis and the tragedies suffered by patients. It also paints a somewhat depressing picture of a healthcare system that is unable to resist pressure from pharmaceutical companies and protect the interests of patients, as they are too focused on profit at the expense of human life.




Pain Hustlers

Direction - 6.6
Actors - 6.8
Story - 6.2
Visuals/Music/Sounds - 5.8
Ambience - 5.4



"A fájdalom ügynökei" egy Netflix gyártású film, amely a gyógyszeripari romlottság és az opioid-válság témakörét boncolgatja egy szórakoztató, de elgondolkodtató drámában. A film ambíciózus keresztezése a "Wall Street farkasa" pénzügyi és "Erin Brockovich" társadalmi elkötelezettségének, de nem sikerül teljes mértékben vászonra vinni sem az orvosi sales-világ kíméletlen dinamikáját, sem a társadalmi igazságosság elégtételét. Annak ellenére, hogy jelentős hibái vannak, a film fontos kérdéseket vet fel a gyógyszeriparról és annak társadalmi hatásairól, és elszomorító képet fest az egészségügyi rendszer profitra való összpontosításának veszélyeiről.

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BadSector is a seasoned journalist for more than twenty years. He communicates in English, Hungarian and French. He worked for several gaming magazines – including the Hungarian GameStar, where he worked 8 years as editor. (For our office address, email and phone number check out our impressum)

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