Emily Blunt portrays a morally ambiguous character in the predictable film “Pain Hustlers.”

David Yates’ Netflix dramedy tackles the opioid crisis, featuring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans as dubious pharmaceutical representatives selling fentanyl

In recent years, Hollywood has extensively explored the opioid industry through documentaries like “The Crime of the Century” and series such as “Dopesick” and “Painkiller,” delving into the various aspects of the ongoing crisis, from corporate corruption to its impact on individuals. “Pain Hustlers,” a new Netflix dramedy, focuses on a specific facet of this issue: the pharmaceutical representatives who promoted fentanyl to increase profits.

Director David Yates, renowned for his work on the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, endeavors to expose the pharmaceutical industry in a manner similar to how “The Wolf of Wall Street” tackled stocks or “The Big Short” addressed the housing bubble — blending scandalous comedy with a blistering takedown. However, despite commendable performances by Emily Blunt and Chris Evans, “Pain Hustlers” fails to deliver the shocking impact or scathing critique needed to resonate deeply with audiences.

In “Pain Hustlers,” Blunt portrays Liza Drake, our whistleblower and conduit to the world of excess. Liza is a Gulf Coast girlboss, a single mother and high-school dropout, willing to take on various jobs, from exotic dancing to multi-level marketing schemes, to make ends meet and support her young daughter (Chloe Coleman). Her charm captivates pharmaceutical rep Pete Brenner (Evans), who recruits her to assist in promoting a new form of fentanyl for the fictional drug company Zanna.

Zanna, the pharmaceutical company, is facing difficulties as its flagship drug, Lonafen, a cancer pain medication, struggles to gain traction in the market. Despite claims of being twice as effective as competitors, Pete and his sales team find it challenging to break into the tightly controlled market. Enter Liza, whose exceptional sales skills shine. She builds a network of representatives and wins over small clinics throughout Florida and the Southeast. While Liza’s sales tactics may not always be entirely ethical, she proves to be a persuasive figure, capable of convincing both a high-school principal to spare her daughter from expulsion and a doctor to embrace an unproven drug. In her mind, she rationalizes her actions as contributing to saving lives, with the hefty paycheck being a welcome bonus.

As Liza grapples with the ethical implications of their work, her partner Pete remains unbothered by moral considerations. Evans embodies the entitled, sleazy demeanor he brought to previous roles in films like Knives Out and The Gray Man, demonstrating his knack for playing charismatic yet morally ambiguous characters. Meanwhile, Blunt and Evans are supported by a talented ensemble cast. Andy Garcia portrays the increasingly paranoid CEO of Zanna, while Catherine O’Hara delivers a memorable performance as Liza’s eccentric mother, who joins her daughter in promoting Lonafen. Brian d’Arcy James stands out as Dr. Lydell, a dubious clinician willing to prescribe any drug pushed his way, particularly if it means receiving kickbacks to fund his hair transplants.

Despite solid performances from the cast, the chaotic direction overshadows their efforts. While David Yates previously brought magic to the Wizarding World, his approach in Pain Hustlers feels overwrought, with an abundance of voiceovers, freeze frames, and black-and-white mockumentary-style talking heads. These techniques, which have been executed more effectively in films like The Big Short, now come across as derivative. Unfortunately, these gimmicks distance the audience from the film’s subject matter, and despite being based on a true story, Pain Hustlers fails to fully confront the gravity of the impact of fentanyl.

The film even provides Liza with a sympathetic excuse, suggesting that her actions were driven by her need to pay for her daughter’s expensive surgery. While she may have distributed addictive pain medication across the Sunshine State, this justification attempts to absolve her of moral responsibility. The only genuine emotional moment occurs when a grieving widow confronts Lydell for prescribing the drug that led to her husband’s death. However, Pain Hustlers prioritizes portraying sleaze and greed over exploring the consequences of these actions. It offers entertainment value but lacks depth, providing just enough substance to fill a prescription pad rather than a whole book.

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