Pete Brenner In ‘Pain Hustlers,’ Explained: Is He Based On Real-Life CEO, Michael Babich?


When we first saw Pete Brenner in Pain Hustlers, we perceived him to be a person who was dedicated to the cause of his company, Zanna Therapeutics, and one who was trying his best to increase the sales of their fentanyl-based drug called Lonafen. Though Pete Brenner’s character isn’t based on any one specific person, we could say that the makers may have taken inspiration from the real-life CEO and president of Insys Pharmaceutical, Michael Babich, who worked closely with John Kapoor and was responsible for creating all the fraudulent strategies to make the doctors prescribe their drug. We have to say here that Pain Hustlers didn’t give us a lot of insights about the kind of man Pete Brenner was, and we consider it to be the biggest flaw of the narrative. Probably, that is why we were never able to feel attached to the journey of the characters or the emotions they were portraying at a certain point in the film. There are only two conversations between Pete and Liza Drake, where we got some idea about his sensibilities, but apart from that, the writers left it to our discretion to decide what drove his motivations. We say this because a subject like this and a character like Pete Brenner had a lot of potential, but the makers did not use this opportunity, and in the end, the character ceased to have any impact. So, let’s try to decipher why Pete Brenner did what he did, and did he have any sort of guilt or remorse for the kind of devastation he had caused?

Why did Brenner hire Liza?

Pete met Liza in a dance club, and though he didn’t seem to be a reckless man, he gave his number to her and asked her to give him a call if she ever needed a job. Pete was not the kind of man who, just to show off in front of a girl, would tell her that he could get her a job, but he actually saw something in Liza. He saw how she paid attention to details and how she had a knack for reading people and getting to know what was going on inside their minds. Liza did come to Brenner for a job, and without even thinking, the latter offered her a position as a sales representative in the company. Brenner barely knew Liza, but he was ready to put in fake qualifications in her CV and go to any extent so that his bosses didn’t object to her selection. Brenner, as far as we could perceive, was very sure that Liza could do something that the other sales reps hadn’t been able to do up until then. And Liza didn’t disappoint him, as she brought Dr. Lydell on board, and he started prescribing Lonafen to every other patient of his. Pete made sure that, along with him, Liza also earned a fortune for herself, and everything went well for both of them. Dr. Neel was extremely happy about how Brenner and Liza had gone off the books and done something so unbelievable, and he promoted both of them. Brenner became the new CEO, and Liza became the vice president of sales. Brenner had taken a huge risk by hiring Liza, and he knew that if she didn’t perform, then a dagger would fall on his head, but luckily, nothing of that sort happened, and as a result, both of them now had everything they had ever desired.

What conflict arose between Liza and Brenner?

At the end of Pain Hustlers, Liza and Brenner started having a lot of conflicts, and that’s when we got an idea of the kind of individual Brenner was. It wouldn’t be wrong if we said that Brenner was a sycophant and he did everything in his hand to please his boss, Dr. Jack Neel. We believed at the beginning that Brenner would have a strong conscience, but it was not so; he was ready to do anything and everything that his boss wanted. Brenner didn’t understand why Liza was feeling that she had not done anything remarkable in her life when they had together amped up the sales of Lonafen to the extent that the company was making such huge profits. One time, Dr. Neel called both Liza and Brenner, as he was not happy with the fact that the growth had come to a standstill, and they were falling short of his expectations. He asked them both to convince the doctors to prescribe their drug off-label, as he didn’t care if doing that was illegal or not. Liza instantly raised her objections, and with Brenner being the yes man, he handled the situation and told Dr. Neel not to worry at all as he would make sure that it was done. That man didn’t even bat an eye before making that decision, even when he knew that by doing so, he would be putting the lives of hundreds of patients at risk. The study made it very clear that the rate of addiction was less than one percent only when it was administered to opioid-tolerant patients.

When Brenner got to know that Liza was backstabbing them and that she had gone to the authorities and told them everything, he lost his temper. Brenner felt betrayed, and we realized that allegiance to his boss and his company mattered to him more than anything else. Also, money would have been a huge factor that influenced Brenner’s decision-making. In the end, Brenner was convicted by the court, and in reality, too, the CEO of Insys Therapeutics, Michael Babich, got 30 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud. We don’t think that Brenner had any qualms about what he did, and the only regret that he would have had was that he trusted Liza with his life, and she went to the authorities and double-crossed him. Pete Brenner got what he deserved, though we believe that in his mind, he had a similar reasoning as that of Richard Sackler, who always maintained that it was not his fault that people got addicted to his drug.

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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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