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Strong Leads Can’t Save ‘Pain Hustlers’ from Falling Into a Familiar Formula

David Yates directorial prowess from the Wizarding World doesn’t carry over when tackling the opioid epidemic.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFRTA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.

The Big Short. The Wolf of Wall Street. What do these films have in common? They tell a story of exploitation before complete catastrophe. Director David YatesPain Hustlers follows that same rhythm, but instead of Wall Street at its center, it’s the opioid epidemic.

Pain Hustlers, starring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans, premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. This was perhaps my most anticipated film at TIFF 2023, and despite offering meager engagement, Pain Hustlers feels dreadfully familiar to the films it’s modeled after.

Pain Hustlers review: a story about the consequences of wealth, partnerships, and addiction

Emily Blunt wearing a salt and pepper colored dress and Chris Evans wearing a maroon suit in a scene in Pain Hustlers | Agents of Fandom
Emily Blunt as Liza Drake and Chris Evans as Pete Brenner in Pain Hustlers. Image Credit: Netflix.

Inspired by the New York Times article and book The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup by journalist Evan Hughes, Pain Hustlers follows Liza Drake (Blunt) a single mother who works at a strip club to pay the medical bills for her epileptic daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman). Liza meets Pete Brenner (Evans), a pharmaceutical sales rep, and everything takes a turn when she’s given a life-changing opportunity.

Pete admires by Liza’s talent and recruits her to convince physicians to prescribe a new kind of opioid that is designed as a pain relief for cancer patients. However, the duo becomes greedy, and the partnership is jeopardized when Liza realizes the harm that comes from her newfound employment.

David Yates directs this film like a documentary, individually interviewing each player in the events that lead them to accidentally kick-start the opioid epidemic. This story unfolds through different perspectives, but it’s Blunt’s character that leads this film from the beginning. These diverse perspectives showcase the effect that the greed for wealth and addiction has on a person.

It’s evident that Yates drew inspiration from many other crime-drama comedies like American Hustle when directing this movie. The use of voice-overs, freeze frames, and character interviews showcase a distinct meta style seen in films where a character takes ownership of the scene. Leonardo DiCaprio performs this similarly in The Wolf of Wall Street. Yet in Pain Hustlers, there are scenes where it’s unnecessary to narrate as the viewer can clearly see the narrated actions taken place.

This particular choice for direction works to an extent, explaining the consequences of making millions with pharmaceutical drugs, yet it’s overdone. This way of explanation doesn’t bring anything new, causing the film’s whole purpose to feel incredibly underwhelming.

‘Pain Hustlers’ wastes a great cast

Emily Blunt wearing the black dress and Chris Evans in a grey suit in a scene in Pain Hustlers | Agents of Fandom
Emily Blunt as Liza Drake and Chris Evans as Pete Brenner in Pain Hustlers. Image Credit: Netflix.

While Pain Hustlers has the talent, they are underutilized. Blunt makes her stance as the MVP for this film. Liza Drake is a complicated individual, and Blunt brings a compelling force that grabs the audiences’ attention throughout. Fortunately, she abandons an abysmal Florida accent early in the film.

Chris Evans returns to playing the playboy, bad guy as seen in his previous films like Knives Out, The Gray Man, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. While he brings his all to this role as a supporting character, his screen time is disappointingly limited. Evans has range, as displayed in his performance in Gifted, and Pain Hustlers fails to utilize that range by allowing him to express it fully.

Andy Garcia seems like he had a blast filming this movie, and his character being utterly ridiculous makes sense for the plot of the film. Playing Liza’s mother is the legendary Catherine O’Hara, who’s amazing as always. However, her character drifts from the main story before being brought back in the climax. Scenes with both Garcia and O’Hara raise questions about whether the film is supposed to be more of a comprehensive comedy as opposed to a crime-drama that contains comedy.

The cast adds entertainment value, but the complications with the film’s narrative implies the unclear direction for its cast members. Pain Hustlers is essentially a bad attempt at Scorsese’s 2013 Wolf of Wall Street.

‘Pain Hustlers’ should’ve brought more to the conversation

Chris Evans sitting down wearing a maroon suit in a scene in Pain Hustlers | Agents of Fandom
Chris Evans as Pete Brenner in Pain Hustlers. Image Credit: Netflix.

Despite the humor and strong ensemble, Pain Hustlers fails to win my favor in enjoying a crime-drama comedy. While the film doesn’t bring any new insights into the conversation about the opioid crisis, it displays why there should have been more to further highlight the victims’ families. The film ends with a satisfying conclusion as characters are left to face the consequences of their actions.

Overall, the cast is fantastic and there are high-energy, entertaining moments, yet it falls flat by being formulaic. David Yates stepping away from the Wizarding World is refreshing, though this story needs a better direction than he is able to offer.

Pain Hustlers made its world premiere at TIFF on September 11, and it’s set to release exclusively on Netflix, October 27. Follow the Agents of Fandom socials for the latest movies reviews and coverages from TIFF!

'Pain Hustlers' Review

'Pain Hustlers' Review
3 5 0 1
3.0 rating
Total Score

The Good

  • Watch it for Emily Blunt and Chris Evans only
  • Humor works in some scenes for a couple good laughs
  • Enjoyable during its highest moments

The Bad

  • Some moments are overplayed, underwhelming, meaningless, and long
  • Cast members are wasted
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