'Pain Hustlers' Turns the Opioid Crisis into Disposable Content

Directed by David Yates

Starring Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Catherine O'Hara, Chloe Coleman, Jay Duplass, Brian d'Arcy James, Amit Shah, Andy Garcia

Photo: Betina La Plante / Netflix

BY Rachel HoPublished Oct 27, 2023

We're at the stage of the opioid crisis where billion dollar companies like Netflix are unironically releasing multiple mediocre projects about how billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies and doctors are profiting off the death and suffering of millions around the world. 

Where Danny Strong's Hulu miniseries Dopesick offered an empathetic view into the world of those addicted to opioids (and their families) and Nan Goldin's All the Beauty and the Bloodshed hurled a scathing critique at the Sackler family and their complicity, Netflix's Painkillers and their latest, Pain Hustlers, are vapid entries that don't have anything to add to the conversation.

Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a high school dropout with street smarts, meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) at the strip club where she works under the stage name Destiny. She claims to be able to read people easily and correctly surmises that Pete is a pharmaceutical sales rep. Impressed at her wits, Pete gives Liza his business card with promises of employment attached. It's at this moment that the phone at the club rings and the bartender says, "Hey Destiny, phone call." 

Initially, Liza rebuffs the idea of working as a sales rep given her lack of experience and education, but, after being evicted from her sister's garage and moving into a motel with her daughter (Chloe Coleman), she reconsiders. Liza quickly learns the ropes and not only saves the pharmaceutical company, but also becomes wealthy beyond her wildest dreams, which is showcased through a cheap The Wolf of Wall Street-esque montage of partying and excess.

Director David Yates opts for an off-kilter structure for the film, incorporating faux-documentary segments that, while useful in measuring out the pacing, doesn't lend much to the narrative. The film does find its feet towards the end, when Pain Hustlers goes legal drama and Liza must reckon with her own ambition, balanced with her financial and parental obligations. But any regrets Liza is meant to be dealing with never feel earned or genuine. Blunt does the best she possibly can with a script lacking in depth or insight, and Coleman turns in a fresh performance that works well against Blunt's headier turn. Regardless, the mother-daughter dynamic can't keep this ship from sinking.

What opioids have done to North America and the rest of the world is horrifying and needs to be discussed with intention and sensitivity. TV shows and movies have proven in the past to be powerful mediums to begin and push conversations of this kind into the mainstream; in order to do so, though, especially with a topic of this nature, these series and films need to be done with care. It's become clear that, as a studio, Netflix has prioritized topical clicks over thoughtful projects that carry a modicum of respect for those they depict as victims.

Latest Coverage