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Pain Hustlers hurts: TIFF Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Sometimes the truth hurts, and hurting others always comes with repercussions. That’s the core lessons of Netflix’s new starry film Pain Hustlers, which awkwardly premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last night.

Telling the story of Insys Therapeutics and based on the investigative book by Evan Hughes, the film looks at the rise of fentanyl sales and the profiteering of Insys at the start of the 2011-12 opioid addiction crisis in the United States.

Sounds funny, right? The movie centres not on the victims but instead on the salespeople, including Liza Drake (a standout Emily Blunt) and greasy drug rep Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), as they go from nobodies in drug sales to multi-millionaires in just a few months.

What dooms Pain Hustlers from being either informative or entertaining is the whiplash in its bland, straightforward plot line. The far stronger first hour of the film focuses on the comedy of disbelief, asking “How could a high school drop out like Liza be an all-star in pharmacy sales?”, to a much starker, drab and dull second half when conspiracy comes to town.

Director David Yates (best known as the director of seven titles in the Harry Potter franchise) is too aggressive in his attempting balance of when the sales characters can be funny and when we need to see them as the greedy, guiltless villains they’re framed to be.

Only two actors are successful in finding the appropriate scenes to play each tone: Blunt as Liza and Chloe Coleman (Dungeons & Dragons and Marry Me) as her daughter Phoebe. These girls are also the only two who garner any laughs. Much of the celebrity main cast is serviceable but forgettable.

Pain Hustlers is rarely funny, but I’ll admit there are several lines and bits that when they do succeed they land hard. And for by-the-book (literally) this adaptation is, it’s also technically well-produced and makes the medical stakes and terms clear for anyone who’s only learning about this important subject for the first time.

The story of corporate American greed is found in countless superior films, especially in R-rated comedies. Maybe the righteous and grounded ending, however hollow, would land better with audiences if The Wolf of Wall Street hadn’t come out ten years ago.

After being promised a splashy, intelligent crime comedy, it seems like Netflix hustled their audience yet again, delivering the stars in a shallow presentation.

Pain Hustlers

5 out of 10

14A, 2hrs 4mins. Crime Comedy Drama.

Directed by David Yates.

Starring Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, Chloe Coleman, Brian D’Arcy James and Catherine O’Hara.

Opens in theatres everywhere (including Oakville) on Friday, Oct. 20 and begins streaming on Netflix for subscribers on Oct. 27. Also plays TIFF again on Sept. 12 and 15, with tickets available here.