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‘Pain Hustlers’ selling an important story in a forgettable way

In the early days of what would come to be known as the opioid crisis, someone close to me was caught up in it. They were legally prescribed by a doctor, but over time we could see that it was an issue of addiction. Fortunately, they were able to get clean before anything tragic happened, but there were some close calls. I tell some of this story to say that I, like many in Appalachia, have a close connection to the story told in “Pain Hustlers,” the new film on Netflix directed by David Yates and written by Wells Tower based on the book by Evan Hughes.

Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) is a single mom, struggling to pay the bills. One night when she is dancing at a bar, she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans). She impresses him with her people reading and he offers her a job selling Lonafen, a fast-acting fentanyl spray developed by Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia) after he watched his wife suffer through her cancer diagnosis with inadequate pain relief. Liza’s job is to find a doctor willing to switch his patients to this drug, and she finds him in Dr. Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James), essentially saving the business. But business is tough and Liza and Pete find themselves making deals that aren’t altogether on the level to stay ahead. When the enterprise begins to crumble, Liza has to make a decision about how to proceed.

I had a tough time connecting with any of the characters in this movie. I felt like I needed someone to root for, and I’m pretty sure that we’re supposed to be on Liza’s side, but with the structure of the story, her remorse felt more opportunistic than genuine. In other films that have told a similar story, particularly the limited series “Dopesick” on Hulu, there is a team of people who bring down the pharma gods. This story relied on a single person and her reasoning never felt like it was actually about the people who were hurt. Which is probably due largely to the fact that we spend very little time with the patients who were the victims of greedy sales reps and crooked doctors.

The performances are all fine. Evans has one scene near the end that really worked for me, but for the most part, I found most of them merely adequate rather than moving. Blunt was never able to overcome the writing to make Liza someone I rooted for. You will seldom meet a bigger Catherine O’Hara fan than me, and even her performance felt phoned-in, which was disappointing, to say the least.

The number of people, particularly in Appalachia, who have been impacted by these drugs is outpaced only by the greed of the people perpetrating the harm. This is a movie that is telling a story that is important for us to remember, but unfortunately doing it in an incredibly forgettable way.

ALISE CHAFFINS is a Morgantown writer who loves movies and sharing her opinions, as well as a member of the International Film Society Critics Association. She reviews a movie from a streaming service every Saturday and one newly in theaters every Sunday. Find more at MacGuffin or Meaning on Substack.