Liza Drake In ‘Pain Hustlers,’ Explained: Is She Based On Real-Life Whistleblower, Maria Guzman?


Directed by David Yates and based on the explosive article written by Evan Hughes for the New York Times exposing Insys Therapeutics, Pain Hustlers shows us how it has been a common practice over the years to hire young and attractive sales representatives to lure medical practitioners into prescribing the drug of a company. Emily Blunt’s character, Liza Drake, was one of those girls hired by Zanna Therapeutics. Though the character of Liza is not based on any one specific person, it could be said that it was inspired by the real-life whistleblower, Maria Guzman, who brought the corrupt activities of the pharma company to light.

From changing the names of the characters to adding subplots that didn’t happen in real life, the makers have fictionalized the narrative for dramatic purposes, though the core conflict remains the same. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that in Pain Hustlers, Liza Drake was the only individual among all the other employees of Zanna Therapeutics who had a conscience, as otherwise, the rest of them had no qualms about risking the lives of millions of people as long as their company was earning huge profits, and they were able to afford their swanky lifestyles. Liza was on the path to success when she started having doubts about the kind of work she was doing and the repercussions it could have on her life. That’s when she decided to take a step back and go to the authorities and inform them about everything that had been happening. So, let’s find out what kind of internal conflicts Liza was facing in her life and what she ended up doing as a result of them.

Spoiler Alert

Why Did Liza Start Working For Zanna Therapeutics?

Liza was finding it hard to earn her livelihood, and she was running short of ideas as to how to support herself and her family. She had a flair for marketing, but still, she hadn’t been able to put it to good use, and as a result, she was staying in her sister’s garage with her mother, Jackie. Amidst all this, she had to take care of her daughter, Phoebe, who was suffering from epilepsy, and Liza had no clue how she would keep up with the medical bills. Liza loved her daughter beyond any measure, and she didn’t want her inability to get a job to affect her. Liza had an argument with her sister, and she decided to leave the garage and go and stay with Phoebe in a motel.

Liza used to work as a dancer in a club and call it fate or good fortune, one day, she met a drunk man there who happened to be an executive of a big pharmaceutical company named Zanna Therapeutics. Pete Brenner liked how Liza was able to read others, and something told him that she would be a great sales representative. Brenner was drunk, but he was not joking when he asked Liza to give him a call if she wanted a job in the future. When Liza moved to the motel, she realized that she would have to do something about her miserable existence, as that was not how she had imagined her life to be, and she also didn’t want her daughter to live there. She wanted her daughter to be in a comfortable space, and she was ready to go to any extent to provide for her. She went to meet Pete Brenner, and luckily, she got a job, even though she did not have any educational qualifications. Pete had decided that he would lie to Dr. Jack Neel and others about Liza’s qualifications because he had a lot of trust in Liza’s abilities and knew that she had the capability of thinking outside the box.

Why Did Liza Expose Zanna Therapeutics?

Brenner’s bet paid off, and Liza was able to make Dr. Lydell prescribe their drug, Lonafen. And as they say, the rest is history, as Zanna made profits that no financial analyst ever imagined. They were making millions every day, and it seemed like every doctor in each and every corner of the United States was prescribing Lonafen to their patients, no matter what kind of pain they were suffering from. The first time we witnessed Liza having some kind of doubt about the work she was doing was when, at a success party, she told Brenner that though she had become rich now, she didn’t feel like she had achieved anything in life. Liza always wanted to make her life count, but here, she had not done anything remarkable. Yes, her business strategies had paid off, but she didn’t feel fulfilled. She had thought that seeing money in her account would bring her happiness, but it was not so simple, and she craved something more. Around this same time, Dr. Neel told Brenner and Liza to convince the doctors to write off-label prescriptions as it seemed like the profits had hit a plateau, and there had been no improvement for the past couple of months.

Zanna Therapeutics only had permission to administer their drug to patients suffering from terminal illnesses, but they now wanted people to have their fentanyl-based drug even for something as minor as a headache. Liza didn’t feel it was the right thing to do, and she saw that due to the higher doses, the patients were becoming addicted to it. Brenner and Dr. Neel might have turned a blind eye to reality, but Liza’s conscience didn’t allow her to do so. She knew that Dr. Neel might completely ruin her life, but still, she went ahead and informed the authorities about all the fraudulent activities that were happening in the company. She knew that the Speaker’s Program, later referred to as the Kick Back program, was initiated by her, and together with Brenner, she would have to face legal implications for it, but still, she wanted to do the right thing, and that made a whole lot of difference.

Liza Drake was given a sentence of one year and three months, which was lesser as compared to the other conspirators, as she had cooperated with the court. Liza’s circumstances forced her to deceive people, but she knew that she could not take it as an excuse and what she had done was wrong. Liza had always believed that she was a good human being and so more than anybody she needed to prove herself that she was not a perpetrator like others. She wanted to be able to stand in front of her daughter and tell her that she was an honest woman who had never lied or cheated anyone. She wanted to be able to look at herself in the mirror and be proud of the work she had done. The opioid scandal changed Liza as a person, and she might have been a co-conspirator at once, but it was due to her efforts that the truth was brought to light, and the lives of hundreds of people were saved.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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