PAIN HUSTLERS. Emily Blunt Battles Cancer [REVIEW]

That’s the paradox of Pain Hustlers – everything is in place, everything seems to work, but the whole is somehow uninteresting and not memorable.

Tomasz Raczkowski

30 October 2023

The camera has always loved beautiful people, money, and spectacular intrigues. That’s why an incredibly grateful subject for X’s music is the pharmaceutical business, bending the rules of the market game not always in accordance with ethics to multiply capital gained from the suffering of the sick – I apologize, combating the suffering of the sick. The original title of Netflix’s new film, Pain Hustlers, captures this state of art in a clever way: representatives of pharmaceutical companies gamble with pain, but the stakes are not the number of cured individuals, but the sales figures of prescription drugs. And that’s what Pain Hustlers is about.

David Yates’ film tells the story of Liza Drake – a single mother barely making ends meet, who one day, working as a stripper, meets a sales representative from Zanna company, whom she manages to convince to give her a chance to promote a drug used by cancer patients. Step by step, the talkative, dynamic woman makes a dizzying career in a struggling company, contributing to its spectacular success and going public. However, it doesn’t happen entirely ethically – Liza, along with her partners from Zanna, employs methods on the borderline of legality and ethics, executing a complex corrupt plan that gives them an advantage over the competition. Although it seems to be about combating a deadly disease and providing relief to the suffering, for Liza and her colleagues, what matters are the zeros after the decimal point. Rapid ascent often heralds a swift fall, so it’s easy to imagine how the fates of the characters in Pain Hustlers, loosely inspired by the case of John Kapoor and his company Insys, will unfold.

The staging is dynamic, almost music-video-like at times, occasionally broken by off-narration. There are associations with The Wolf of Wall Street, and if anyone has doubts whether this type of narrative dynamics and editing, combined with the glow of spinning lights and situations, has already become the mainstream language of cinema, the fact that David Yates, an archetype of transparent stylistics and relying on solutions straight from the director’s handbook, has employed such means should be enough to support this thesis. Not that it’s a flaw in Pain Hustlers, but it’s also challenging to perceive this film’s form as fresh. In combination with the rather clumsily used frame of pseudo-documentary retrospection, it creates a sense that Yates is somewhat too forcefully trying to emulate others and create a cool film with a star-studded cast. Not for the first time in recent years, I had the feeling of watching a film tailored for the Oscars but delayed by a few years – about 5-7 orbits around the sun ago, it could have been an awards season banger; now I predict it will receive mixed reviews and possibly a few accolades for Blunt, but otherwise, it might dissolve in the maze of streaming premieres.

The acting is indeed really good – Emily Blunt shines in the role of the talkative and charismatic Liza, seamlessly fitting into the world of big money, looking just as natural in sweatpants as in expensive outfits at social events. Chris Evans diligently supports her as Pete, Liza’s gateway to Zanna, and Andy Garcia as the eccentric millionaire and company boss. Catherine O’Hara also contributes as Liza’s mother, adding a somewhat schematic family relationship thread. Unfortunately, the acting feats are undermined by a script saturated with clichés, which, although not committing cardinal errors, is simply correct, not inching beyond the formulaic framework of a sensational-business drama.

That’s the paradox of Pain Hustlers – everything is in place, everything seems to work, but the whole is somehow uninteresting and not memorable. Emotional stakes do not contribute to a more concrete dramaturgy, and the floating moral in the air lands very clumsily, as if the creators lacked the ingenuity to move from the tracks of fascination with wealth to moral accountability. Well, maybe these are the issues that make there still a difference between David Yates and Martin Scorsese. In the hands of the latter, or someone simply with greater directorial talent, Pain Hustlers could be an exciting hit. Yates, however, lacks something more, an additional scene, a witty dialogue that can sometimes turn an average film into a memorable one, and the whole consequently is disappointingly flat.

Tomasz Raczkowski

Tomasz Raczkowski

Anthropologist, critic, enthusiast of social cinema, British humor and horror films.

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