Sometimes, a movie can have all the components to make an electric story but still be unable to produce any content worth remembering. Netflix’s new film “Pain Hustlers,” released Oct. 27, is a prime example of this phenomenon, depicting the unfolding of a large-scale prescription opioid conspiracy with soulless scenes typical of the white-collar crime genre. Starring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans, “Pain Hustlers” is technically polished with a sound narrative, but it only succeeds in replicating cinematic feats that audiences have seen many times before.
Directed by David Yates and based on Evan Hughes’s 2022 book of the same name, “Pain Hustlers” follows struggling single mother Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) as she uses her wits and deceptive marketing skills to promote a fraudulent drug for Zanna, a failing pharmaceutical company. Encouraged by her audacious coworker Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) and pressed to support her teenage daughter Phoebe (Chloe Colman), Liza finds herself rapidly falling down an illicit medicinal rabbit hole, struggling to preserve her moral compass and personal relationships as she experiences increasingly preposterous levels of wealth.
Painfully obvious in its attempt to recreate hedonistic and extravagant moments reminiscent of films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Pain Hustlers” is undoubtedly over-the-top. It features montages of booming financial success and excessive partying, as well as often crude lines of dialogue that showcase the characters’ corruption. The script has enough witty one-liners and maintains a fast enough pace to keep audiences engaged, but it is ultimately very predictable. When cracks in Zanna’s master plan start to show and the operation comes crashing down one Drug Enforcement Agency arrest at a time, it is difficult to be surprised at the chaos of it all.
Blunt does her best to make do with what she is handed in her leading role, and manages to show her charisma as a polished actress. Convincingly playing the roles of struggling exotic dancer to cool and manipulating saleswoman, Blunt makes Liza’s transition in career and persona seamless and surprisingly believable. But despite the complexity that Blunt tries to give her character, all of Liza’s actions and thoughts feel controlled and formulaic. They offer no real challenges or turning points in her development. Her level-headedness means that her moral dilemma fails to captivate or even provoke the sympathy of viewers, as she never seems to actually cross the line of no return. While Liza’s self-awareness prevents her from being a character the audience wholeheartedly resents, it also makes her a boring one and emphasizes the film’s inability to commit to its depiction of its characters’ depravity.
The film’s standout qualities unfortunately seem to end with Blunt’s talents. Even with a script that tries to dramatize its action and conversations, interactions between characters lack emotional depth and any sense of payoff. The film is also littered with outdated and jarring song choices — DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” feels painfully out of place — and despite their high production quality, its shots are uninspiring and bland.
“Pain Hustlers” portrays Liza’s simultaneous rise and downfall through voiceovers and documentary-style interview segments that interrupt scenes randomly. Various characters involved in the scheme reflect on their past crimes with an air of sarcasm mixed with sentimental remorse. The selection of characters in these segments range from Liza and Brenner to victims of Zanna’s crimes. Not only does this stylistic and narrative choice feel underdeveloped, but in depicting the characters’ guilty testimonials, it intentionally highlights the tragedies that their money-hungry choices have wrought on suffering patients. This may have provided an interesting point for the film to develop on its budding empathy and humanism, but it fails to do anything of significance with such a realization.
“Pain Hustlers” is admittedly earnest in its efforts to produce a suspenseful crime drama, but in adhering too closely to the conventions and expectations of its genre, it is stuck repeating shallow cliches and seems to muddle its message. It feels harsh to say that “Pain Hustlers” is a completely unsalvageable attempt at an exhilarating watch — perhaps calling it unmemorable would be a better way to describe it.