There can be no doubt that behind the devastating effects on the masses that the opioid epidemic in the USA brought was criminal greed for money. While the extent of the two is not really comparable, making films and shows on the opioid business seems to be equally profitable, or at least financially attractive, in the present times. Netflix’s Pain Hustlers is the latest film to focus on events and characters in connection with the opioid crisis. Not taking any original names of families or perpetrators, the film tells the story of a woman named Liza Drake, who is hired by a pharmaceutical executive, following which her life turns upside down. Even with a star-studded cast and high production value, Pain Hustlers is nothing exciting and can be given only a light watch.
Who Is Liza Drake, And Why Does She Accept The Job Offer?
Pain Hustlers takes on a mockumentary form since its very beginning, with characters from the film appearing in what seem to be interviews with a camera crew. The sense established is that the film’s plot is told through this documentary that is being shot, and it all begins in Florida in 2011, where the protagonist, Liza Drake, is struggling with her finances. Liza is a single mother to her adolescent daughter Phoebe and is currently failing to provide for a good life, either for the child or herself. Although she had started a business with her ex-husband, Liza had seemingly not been very careful about the paperwork, and now, after their divorce, the devilish ex-husband had taken over the entire business. At the film’s beginning, the woman has been living in her sister Andy’s garage for the last two months. This irritates Andy since Liza had only asked for shelter for a week, and it leads to an argument between the two.
Liza and Phoebe move out of the garage and settle in a cheap motel room in an extremely shady and hostile neighborhood. Her mother, Jackie, still keeps in touch with Liza, though, as the mother too has been struggling to achieve her passion in life—to sell beauty products that she keeps making. Liza has a difficult time earning enough for herself and her daughter, though, as she currently works as a performer at a strip club. The woman is clearly not confident or comfortable at this workplace, but she struggles to find any other source of income at the moment. During one of her shifts at the club, Liza makes acquaintance with a man who seems quite upfront and brash about the money he makes and how he can change anyone’s fortune.
This man introduces himself as Pete Brenner, a senior executive at a pharmaceutical company named Zanna. Impressed by the quick wits and charm of Liza, Pete offers the woman to work for him, stating that she can earn a hundred thousand dollars with him. Liza obviously has had enough men give her such offers, and so she does not pay any heed to Pete at all. However, after she has to move out of her sister’s garage and settle in at the cheap motel, Liza starts to change her mind. Her car is towed away due to her being unable to continue with the installments, and the woman finds herself at a complete loss. However, Liza is determined to make something out of her life, to make money as well as be of use to the world, and she finally decides to grab any chance that she gets. Liza calls up Pete Brenner, and when he does not respond, she finds out about his office on the internet and reaches the place in order to get hired.
How Does Liza Save Zanna Pharma?
When Liza Drake walks into the Zanna Pharmaceuticals office, Pete and the lead investor in the company, Dr. Jack Neel, face a set of new investors that they want on board. Although Pete had boasted about the financial capabilities of his company back at the strip club, Zanna was actually making heavy losses for quite some time now, and none of their efforts were helping. As has been shown in the multiple other films and shows on the subject of opioids, the key to a successful business for these pharma companies is to convince doctors to prescribe their drugs. In the case of Zanna, the company was lagging behind in this aspect, as doctors were more readily prescribing opioids made by their competitors. This was in spite of the fact that their painkiller drug, Lonafen, had been found to be the opioid with the least side-effects and addictive nature by an established researcher.
Liza reaches the Zanna office without knowing any of this, though, and she meets up with Pete about the job that he had offered her. Liza’s lack of academic qualifications, for she had dropped out of college, and her lack of expertise in the pharmaceutical field of business do initially bother Pete, but he is also confident in her from the very beginning. Knowing that his bosses would not readily show the same confidence, the executive modifies Liza’s CV with exorbitant lies about her holding a Ph.D. degree and other certificates of academic excellence. He then takes her to meet with Jack Neel, and the senior boss is also quite pleased with her charming personality. Liza is immediately given a job at Zanna, but she has to prove herself in the first seven days, or else she will be fired. Her objective is simple enough—to manage to sign a contract with at least one doctor that would guarantee that they would prescribe Lonafen to their patients.
As soon as the protagonist enters the world of pharma, she realizes that her job of convincing doctors will not be an easy task. Pain Hustlers presents the world of medical representatives as riddled with personal favors and creating impressions that do not necessarily involve any professional skills. Doctors prefer companies that send younger and more attractive women as representatives than Liza, and their assistants or receptionists also allow those who provide some direct personal favors to them. There is absolutely nothing positive for Liza in the first couple of days of her job. Rather, there is an added complication that creates more problems for her, as her daughter Phoebe suddenly has a seizure one day. As the girl is rushed to a specialist doctor, she is diagnosed with a tangle of blood vessels in her brain. Although the doctor states that there is no urgency to operate on the condition right away, Phoebe’s health gets worse within some time.
With her back to the wall, Liza now has to give her everything in order to get a doctor on board, and she makes use of a sudden situation that she stumbles across. One of the most popular doctors in the area, Nathan Lydell, had been prescribing some other opioids to his patients, and at this particular instance, one of his patients and his wife came complaining about how the painkiller was not having any effect and was rather making the patient addicted. Liza steps in at this very time, talking about the benefits of her company’s Lonafen. Pressured by the patient’s wife, Lydell signs a deal with Zanna and prescribes the opioid. Very soon, speaker programs are arranged for Lydell, and more doctors start siding with the pharma company. While Zanna had been close to becoming a financial failure, Liza’s efforts had turned the company’s fortune. In fact, Dr. Neel even refuses to listen to one of his senior employees’ concerns about Liza having lied on her CV. Instead, Liza is promoted to Vice President of Sales, while Pete is made the new CEO of the company.
Why Does Liza Have A Change Of Heart With Regards To Her Employers?
After this grand success, Liza enjoys a rapid growth in her lifestyle, as she and Phoebe soon move into a luxury condo rented by the company. The woman starts to enjoy her work, too, as she employs a set of women and men to be representatives under her, and even her mother, Jackie, also joins the team as a sales rep. Throughout Pain Hustlers, the film maintains a positive light for its protagonist, and the dialogues also add to this same effect. Liza Drake is very convinced that she is doing genuine good for the world by not just representing a medicine that eradicates pain for cancer patients but also by creating jobs. Many of the new representatives that Zanna employs are women in similar helpless situations as Liza once was, and she is proud of giving these women a chance.
However, when the allegations and rumors against Zanna and their opioid Lonafen start to circulate, Liza does not believe them very easily. She does not take into consideration that the drugs are growing into a terrible addiction in people and that the company is also using all twisted means to make more money. The character of Liza is too unnaturally idealistic in Pain Hustlers, for she keeps believing that the objective of Zanna is to do good for the world and not really to make money for themselves in unlawful ways. She does not question the fact that more doctors were being indirectly paid or given access to services in exchange for prescribing Lonafen, and she also does not find the exponential popularity of the drug suspicious. She keeps harping on the study that found Lonafen to be the least addictive opioid with no side effects, but as it turns out, this study was specifically conducted on people immune to the drug’s effects, and in essence, Zanna staged this study only to boost its numbers.
The only argument that the film provides in this aspect is that the executive who had offered her the job, Pete Brenner, always kept her under the impression that the pharma company could do no wrong. Another possibility that the film tries to push is that Liza perhaps knew everything about the malpractices but acted innocent at the right time to get away without serious harm. However, the woman does have a change of heart when she starts to see the effect that Zanna and Lonafen have on common people. One of the neighbors from her motel room dies because of his Lonafen addiction, and this affects Liza a lot. Moreover, she seems to have guilt in her conscience when her mother sleeps with Jack Neel, only to earn more commission from her sales. In a way, Liza realizes she is even selling her mother away to the corporates, and although she expresses anger at Jackie at the moment, she also questions her own choices.
Along with all this, Liza also has to convince the doctors now to prescribe Lonafen even to those not diagnosed with cancer and those not even needing such high-powered opioids. Phoebe’s health deteriorates during this time, and Liza goes to Neel seeking monetary help. However, the billionaire investor insensitively tells her to use her pains as fuel to work harder, and this personal disillusionment makes Liza realize that she has been working for an evil corporation. An investigation by state prosecutors was already underway against Zanna Pharma, and the protagonist now approaches the authority about all she knows about the company. She is told to secure any documents that would prove that Pete, Neel, or any of the company seniors were involved in malpractice. Liza manages to steal some documents bearing the same information, but is then caught by Pete. Interestingly, Pete never switches sides, and he continues to claim innocence for himself as well as his employers. Zanna faces even more setbacks when Dr. Nathan Lydell is arrested for writing fake prescriptions for opioids.
What Happens To Liza In The End?
Although the investigation hones in on most of the senior employees at Zanna Pharma, the head investor, Jack Neel, still manages to be free as no evidence against him has been found yet. Meanwhile, Liza arranges the money for Phoebe’s operation, and the procedure is successfully conducted as well. It is during a discussion with Jackie that Liza suddenly realizes how her mother can prove Neel’s malpractices. Earlier, when Jackie had been directly contacting Neel about paying her as much commission as the other women, she had written detailed emails about the practices followed by the sales representatives. These practices were very much illegal, and the fact that Neel had replied to one such email meant that he knew about these wrongdoings.
These emails are turned in as evidence, and the prosecution uses this piece of information to finally arrest Jack Neel. The investor is given a prison sentence of five and a half years, while Pete had already taken the fall earlier and was imprisoned. During the court trial, Liza accepts that she had worked for the company only for money, and even the prosecution appeals that the woman not be given any prison sentence. However, the court finds Liza’s actions to be deserving of fifteen months in prison, and the protagonist does have to spend time in jail.
During Pain Hustlers‘ ending, it is revealed that Liza has been released from prison, and she has started her own business along with Jackie, in which they sell the latter’s skincare products. Some of the sales representatives from Zanna have also been hired by this new business in order to help them earn a livelihood. The film finally ends with real news footage from the arrest of John Kapoor and the fall of Insys Therapeutics, the pharma company on which Pain Hustlers is inspired.