As humanity progresses, it becomes more and more dependent on medicines and pharmaceuticals. Since humans are inclined to turn any atrocity into an opportunity to earn money, our species has converted healthcare into an industry where patients are treated like cash cows. And in an attempt to inform the masses about this insidious affair, artists have made movies and shows on this topic. The Dropout recently made waves for chronicling the story of Elizabeth Holmes. Dopesick tackled the opioid epidemic. The Fall of the House of Usher drew parallels with Purdue Pharma. Dark Waters and Erin Brockovich highlighted health issues related to pollution. Puncture, starring Chris Evans, delved into safety needles. A sub-plot of Jawan showed the stark difference between private hospitals and government hospitals. And then, there are numerous documentaries on the various kinds of fraud being executed by doctors, healthcare professionals, government bodies, and privately owned pharma companies. So, how does Pain Hustlers fare in this sub-genre?
Based on the true story by Evan Hughes (which he has published as a New York Times article as well as a book called The Hard Sell), David Yates’ Pain Hustlers, which has been written by Wells Tower, tells the story of Liza Drake and Pete Brenner. Liza works as a stripper. She lives out of her elder sister Andy’s garage, along with her daughter, Phoebe, and her mother, Jackie. But when things come to a boil due to rent-related issues and a case of arson committed by Phoebe, Liza is forced to move into an actual rented house with her daughter. During one of her shows, Liza comes across Pete, who is a glorified sales representative for a pharma company called Zanna. They have a long conversation, and Pete gives Liza the offer to come work under him. Although there’s a hiring freeze at Zanna, Pete gets Liza to start selling Lonafen by convincing Dr. Lydell to promote the pain-killing drug. They face stiff competition from Camille while also running the risk of illegally pushing an addictive drug as a non-addictive one. As soon as Lydell gives the green light, all of their lives are changed for the better, albeit momentarily.
Since Pain Hustlers is trying so hard to be Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, since everyone who has watched the movie has compared it to The Wolf of Wall Street, and since Scorsese is the talk of the town yet again, let’s get my opinion on the topic out of the way. The biggest critique of Scorsese’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort was that he “endorsed” his actions. In an interview with Timothée Chalamet, Scorsese sarcastically asked why people want him to say that Jordan Belfort is bad. And if that doesn’t underscore the issue with the current state of media literacy, I don’t know what will. Nothing about Scorsese’s treatment of Belfort felt like an endorsement. By the end of the film, I experienced exhaustion and disgust, and I wanted the world to be free of Belfort and people like Belfort. The only mistake, I guess, that Scorsese committed was that he didn’t make his characters turn to the camera and say that they were bad and that the audience shouldn’t relate to them or empathize with them. He put too much trust in the audience and hoped that they’d use their ability to analyze visuals, sounds, text, context, tone, etc., and come to the conclusion that the literal wolf of Wall Street is a villain. Pain Hustlers doesn’t do any of that. So, all the anti-Scorsese and killers of media literacy can calm down and have the commentary spoon-fed to them.
Talking about commentary, Pain Hustlers doesn’t really have anything substantial to say, especially if you have watched a lot of movies and shows about big pharmaceutical frauds. It shows the loophole that people like Liza and Pete try to exploit and make a lot of money in a short amount of time. And after a brief period of euphoria, they crash and burn, thereby proving that easy money doesn’t last long. Like I said, it’s a story as old as time. Now, usually, that “brief period of euphoria” is used to generate anger against the villains masquerading as protagonists. You look at the opulence and the arrogance, and you begin hating this deplorable culture. Yates and Tower shorten that period and dedicate that time to humanizing Liza, with Phoebe’s health issues and her own single-mom-on-a-crusade arc, and Pete, with his hardworker narrative. Instead of taking off the gloves, because these guys have killed millions of people, they pull back their blows by patting them on the back for being good guys deep down. By the way, this isn’t my interpretation; it’s what the movie says through the characters to the viewers by making them look down the camera lens. You don’t have to really use your brain because Pain Hustlers is telling you to feel for Liza because she has a daughter with a dangerous disease, a harmless mother, and a pocket full of dreams. The future of cinematic storytelling looks really bright, doesn’t it?
The first hour or so of Pain Hustlers has some flair to it. Yates, cinematographer George Richmond, and editor Mark Day employ a lot of crash zooms, freeze frames, voiceovers, intercutting between the fictional narrative and fictional interviews, dynamic camerawork—the whole nine yards. Yates and the team even try to do a “wild party sequence,” which you have probably seen in a lot of these films and shows about fraudulent people, and that’s when you realize the filmmakers aren’t imaginative enough to pull this off. You need to have a certain level of disdain towards the characters that you are playing with in order to generate the required amount of revulsion that a movie like this deserves, and Yates just doesn’t have that kind of juice in him, I am afraid. He is too inclined to turn this into a family-friendly affair, maybe because his Harry Potter hangover hasn’t totally gone, and that makes the viewing experience a boring one. All this isn’t helped by the fact that the two leads, Emily Blunt and Chris Evans, are totally miscast and are struggling to maintain a consistent accent. Even greats like Catherine O’Hara and Andy Garcia deliver forgettable performances. The supporting cast is fine, but I am sure that they can do better than this.
Pain Hustlers is one of the most predictable, uninteresting, and boring movies of the year. I understand how there’s not much left to say about pharma fraud because the topic has been covered so extensively by movies, shows, and documentaries. I also understand that there’s nothing new to show when it comes to talking about problematic people who have tasted the highest of highs and the lowest of lows while killing millions of people in the process. But that can’t be used as an excuse for uninspired storytelling. As an artist, it’s your job to offer your perspective on a tale that has been told a hundred times. However, if your perspective is made of a collage of other artists’ visions, then it’s better to spend some more time on the drawing board; or else, all you’re going to do is put out these lackluster pieces of art that’ll be forgotten before the end of the weekend.