by Philip Price
Director: David Yates
Starring: Emily Blunt, Chris Evans & Andy Garcia
Rated: R (language, some sexual content, nudity & drug use)
Runtime: 2 hours & 2 minutes
Between dramatized series' like “Dopesick” and “Painkiller” to last year's unanimously praised documentary “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” the whole world of the pharmaceutical scam and opioid crisis in America has been well-documented over the last few years. Director David Yates seemed to be in luck despite this barrage of similarly-themed content though, as I've only seen the Nan Goldin doc meaning this fictionalized telling of Evan Hughes' 2018 investigative feature of the same name was essentially fresh territory for me. That said, it's unfortunate “Pain Hustlers” or the first feature from Yates that has not been authored by J.K. Rowling since 2014's “Tarzan” and the first non-IP film he's made since 2005 is something he only seems tangentially connected to. That is to say that Yates, a Brit through and through, might have had a vision for how to tell this story when he read Hughes' piece, but he likely found this distinctly American story just that therefore implying the type of vision he then defaulted to.
That default is naturally Scorsese-light as “Pain Hustlers” echoes recent output like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and similar films that came along in its wake a la “The Big Short,” “War Dogs” and most recently “Dumb Money.” Each of these films centers around unqualified individuals stumbling into incredible (if not always legal) situations that garner them untold amounts of money who then have to balance their greed with their inexperience before getting caught. As a piece of entertainment, this moves quickly and offers enough broad insight coupled with reaches for genuine emotion to track as something worthy of your time while being informative either as a whole or about certain aspects of this crisis not yet exposed. As a novice on the subject, I found the idea at its core - the exploitation of helping people for profit rather than the greater good - naturally compelling and the details of it fascinating which made me wonder why, by the close of the film, I had no real reaction to what I'd just experienced.
Given the "outrageous" elements of the story and the long list of endearing talent on screen, it would seem this was a winner, and that Yates should stick to making more grounded material rather than return to the Wizarding World, right? Maybe so, but what is ultimately so underwhelming about “Pain Hustlers” is that despite having all the right pieces in play, that default vision results in something more rote than revolutionary. I'm not even saying this needed to be revolutionary (the movie is middle-of-the-road fine) and I'm not even saying it couldn't feel familiar (“Dumb Money” was absolutely derivative yet I bought into the protagonist as a real person), but while I know it wasn't his intent, it looks and feels as if Yates processed what he shot through a filter of snappy editing, funky soundtracks and pretty people doing despicable things that mimics more than it makes it its own meaning it doesn't feel much like it matters. A kind of perfect illustration of all bark, no bite.
It's a difficult thing to explain. The timing isn't the best, the execution is uninspired, and while I have always adored Emily Blunt as a performer I don't know that I buy her as Liza Drake - a former stripper who lies her way into a pharma rep position only to have her work ethic and ingenuity take her farther than anyone else in the company - or more worrisome, I don't know that either myself or the movie buys Drake as someone with the ability to grow a conscience. The movie is framed with these talking head interviews with different members of the cast (which is all Chris Evans does here: provide context and exposition) and they set up Drake as this ruthless, conniving businesswoman who takes no prisoners and would die before donating a dollar to charity, but by the end of the film we're led to believe the resolution of the film rests on her being the complete opposite. Honestly, Andy Garcia as this eccentric John Kapoor-type figurehead comes out best (every time it showed his real dog standing next to an identical plush I lost it), but at least “Pain Hustlers” gifts us the present of Brian d'Arcy James singing "Closing Time" making this not the calamity its characters find themselves in, but still ... not good ... and not nearly as savage as it should have been.