Pain Hustlers review: "An ineffectual satire that does more pharm than good"

Pain Hustlers (2023)
(Image: © Netflix)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Blunt’s performance is the main selling point in a largely ineffectual satire. In the opioid-movie space, Pain Hustlers does more pharm than good.

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Pain Hustlers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s our review…

Director David Yates - helming his first film in seven years that’s not tied to Harry Potter’s Wizarding World - here has the opioid crisis in his sights. In a crowded field, it takes a lot for a movie on that subject matter to stand out, as Pain Hustlers’ deficiencies unfortunately demonstrate.

Beginning in 2011, it introduces us to a world in which the dangers of opioids are already well known, but unscrupulous pharma types continue to recklessly peddle them regardless. Pain Hustlers is based on an article of (almost) the same name from the New York Times Magazine, although it drops the definite article - perhaps a concession to the fact that this is a fictionalised version of that reporting, transposed from Arizona to Florida, with invented characters and company to boot.

Our guide to this world is Emily Blunt’s Liza Drake, a single mom who, when the film begins, is scraping a living at a lap-dancing club, where she meets sleazy sales rep Pete Brenner (Chris Evans, once again pushing away full-bore from his Captain America image). Pete offers Liza a job at the pharma start-up where he works. It’s a small-fry outfit for now, but thanks to their ‘speaker program’ - in which doctors are schmoozed into plugging the company’s wares and getting a cut of the profits - it won’t be for long. Liza’s gift of the gab makes her a natural fit. So one forged CV later she’s off, and the company’s stock is soon soaring.

pain hustlers

(Image credit: Netflix)

So begins a familiar trajectory. But despite a typically strong performance from Blunt - and a fun, if one-note, Evans - neither the rise nor the inevitable fall ever feel all that compelling. It lacks the sheer audaciousness of the similarly structured The Wolf of Wall Street, and doesn’t come close to the energy of The Big Short, which whipped up furious indignation while being massively entertaining at the same time.

There are no massively surprising revelations, and the fictionalised sheen makes it feel a bit toothless. While Liza’s wrongdoings aren’t entirely glossed over, Blunt’s sympathetic turn and the presence of a sick daughter who desperately needs expensive medical treatment do go a considerable way to absolving her of her involvement in a heinous situation. She’s not let entirely off the hook, but it does mute the overall message of the movie.

Yates is a safe pair of hands, as seven Wizarding films to date have demonstrated, so Pain Hustlers is never less than competently put together. But there must be a more vital, more electrifying version of this story buried beneath the overly safe surface.

Pain Hustlers launches on Netflix on October 27. 

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Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.