Pain Hustlers tackles the well-tread subject of the opioid epidemic that continues to destroy lives at an alarming rate. The film shines the bright Florida sun on the problem and the many, many issues linked to the greed of Big Pharma as well as the failure of the US health system.
Emily Blunt, alongside an outstanding supporting cast, dazzles as the lead, Liza Drake, a single mother struggling to get by. Her natural sales skills and ambition combined with desperation and opportunity provides a slippery slope that leads to federal crimes and a tragic death toll.
Hulu’s lauded limited series Dopesick takes a sobering, somber look at the same topic. Pain Hustlers tells a very similar story but with a satirical bent—a brighter version of dark events.
While the material is virtually the same, the tone couldn’t be more different. Dopesick is heavy and utterly devastating thanks to fantastic dramatic performances by Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever, Rosario Dawson, and Will Poulter. Pain Hustlers, on the other hand, manages a lightness with comedy that leans into the smarminess, but still injecting emotion thanks to talented character turns by Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Catherine O’Hara, and Chloe Coleman as Liza’s epileptic daughter.
Pain management is supposed to be geared toward helping people, but as an industry, it’s all about making money and exploiting people’s pain. Blunt’s Liza puts herself in the middle of this corporate moral dilemma in order to survive and to give her daughter the medical care she needs.
Her reasons are valid for her to take drastic measures, but those reasons turn into rationalizations and compromises for misdeeds, wrongdoings, and illegal activity. Blunt is tasked with the difficult job of portraying a good person with good intentions getting wrapped up in a massive corporate conspiracy.
It’s clear that Liza goes into the endeavor with eyes wide open—we know that she knows much of what she is getting herself into. At the start, Liza comes across as crass and insensitive, like someone who would fit in well with the crooks of the pharmaceutical sector. As the story progresses, Blunt makes subtle choices that start to shift one’s perception of Liza and her goals.
This character development is largely supported by Liza’s relationship with her daughter, Phoebe (Coleman). Liza is not a regular mom, she’s a cool mom, barely even fazed at Phoebe’s accidental arson debacle and subsequent suspension. But, she’s also very caring with her which is evident in big ways like how she comforts her through a seizure, and in small gestures like putting an earplug in a sleeping Phoebe’s ear while music blasts through the paper thin walls of their motel residence.
We see that Liza is not an evil corporate thug long before she attempts to right the many wrongs and ultimately takes down Zanna, serving time for her own involvement, too. It serves the story well to center Liza, and Blunt turns in an incredible performance.
Evans’ Pete Brenner is everything we don’t want Liza to turn into. At first, his performance seems over the top—a bit schlocky—but he settles into it and Pete becomes a believable, engaging character, albeit a slime ball. The differing personalities and convictions of Liza and Pete play against each other really well, and strengthens the storytelling as a result.
Garcia and O’Hara are peripheral characters but integral nonetheless and deliver grand performances for these smaller roles.
It’s the performances that inform the character development and that development helps to create a tight and effective narrative that unfolds organically. Pain Hustlers sensitively portrays the horrific opioid crisis through well done and subtle satire.
Pain Hustlers is now streaming on Netflix.