We are told from the onset that “Pain Hustlers” is “inspired by real events.”
It quickly becomes clear that what that means in this case is the movie, though largely entertaining, is not telling a dramatized true tale set within the country’s opioid crisis.
Its characters — including those played by appealing leads Emily Blunt and Chris Evans — never feel all that authentic. And as for what transpires … let’s just say “Pain Hustlers” isn’t afraid to lay it on a little thick now and then.
That said, does this story of ambitious folks getting caught up in pushing doctors to prescribe a potentially harmful drug in the hopes of lining their pockets ring true at various points? Oh, sure.
Its genesis was screenwriter Wells Tower being sent journalist Evan Hughes’ 2018 New York Times article “The Pain Hustlers,” about the scandal surrounding the company Insys Therapeutics. Furthermore, the book Hughes would later write, eventually titled “Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup” and developed alongside the movie, serves very loosely as its basis.
However, “Pain Hustlers” — helmed by David Yates, the director of seven movies in the “Harry Potter” universe — is more interested in being engaging than it is in hitting hard.
It wants us to invest in Blunt’s Liza Blake, a scrappy if not always reliable single mom whom Evans’ Pete Brenner meets at the exotic dance club where she works.
Looking to do the best she can for teen daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman, “Gunpowder Milkshake”) and needing to move out of her judgemental sister’s garage, Liza takes Pete up on an offer for a sales position at Zanna, the failing Florida-based pharmaceutical company where he’s in management and works with people he despises.
She is given just one week to hook a “whale” — a doctor who will prescribe the company’s fentanyl-based drug, Lonafen, intended to relieve pain in cancer patients. With much effort, she finds that whale, Brian d’Arcy James’ Dr. Lydell, whom Chloe refers to at one point as “Doctor Sketchball.”
Soon, more prescriptions are being written by more doctors, money is flowing into Zanna and rules increasingly are being bent and broken by drug reps and docs alike.
While Liz and Pete are making the highly profitable moves, the puppetmaster is Zanna head Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia). He talks of creating the drug because the idea of his wife being in pain while she died of cancer broke his heart but is obsessed with the company maintaining its incredible growth rate.
Yates and Tower want us to have someone to root for, so Emily — after buying an incredible home and paying “enhanced tuition” at her daughter’s exclusive private school — develops a conscience. She worries about what doctors agreeing to prescribe Lonafen for not-FDA-approved uses will mean for patients and wants to take steps to make Zanna less of a target for the feds. However, Jack — an increasingly paranoid germaphobe who has worked to isolate himself from the actions of his employees — isn’t interested.
Thanks to the almost always compelling Blunt (“Edge of Tomorrow,” “A Quiet Place”), it is, in fact, pretty easy to care about what happens to Liza, whose motivation for (eventually) doing the right thing includes her daughter’s need for a pricy medical procedure. She’s no angel, Blunt is so good that we forget that for big stretches of “Pain Hustlers.”
It’s a little harder to worry about what will become of Pete, a character given little dimension by Tower and Yates and who, for some reason, has been provided with a distracting Boston accent by Beantown native Evans (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Knives Out”).
We wouldn’t have minded a bit more screen time for Garcia (“Expend4bles”), who adds a little color to “Pain Hustlers” as the eccentric if ultimately loathsome Jack.
Likewise, the film doesn’t find quite enough for the talented Catherine O’Hara (“Best in Show,” “Schitt’s Creek”) to do as Jackie, Liza’s loose-cannon mother, whom she hires to be a sales representative. (What could go wrong there?)
“Pain Hustlers” doesn’t ignore the damage the drug is doing to the people taking it and their loved ones, but that isn’t where its focus lies. The movie wants to be “The Wolf of Wall Street” rather than something akin to the excellent Hulu limited series “Dopesick.” As a result, it feels a bit slight, short story writer Tower’s lack of screenwriting experience perhaps showing a bit.
On the other hand, in Yates’ hands, it’s brisk and punchy. There’s simply something to be said from any streaming offering that doesn’t stagnate.
“Pain Hustlers” shines more light on a shady and dangerous world, one in which doctors are incentivized to write prescriptions and where profit can be more important to some than quality health care. It isn’t the first work to do that, and it isn’t the best.
But at least it has Emily Blunt.
When: Oct. 27.
Rated: R for language throughout, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Runtime: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.5.