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Movie Review: ‘Pain Hustlers' tells a sadly familiar story with a kitchen-sink style

The wife of a man who nearly died of an opioid overdose comes bursting into the office of the sleazy doctor who prescribed it, wrongly, in exchange for personal gain. She slugs the doctor, in her agony.
This image released by Netflix shows Catherine O'Hara, left, and Emily Blunt in a scene from "Pain Hustlers." (Brian Douglas/Netflix via AP)

The wife of a man who nearly died of an opioid overdose comes bursting into the office of the sleazy doctor who prescribed it, wrongly, in exchange for personal gain. She slugs the doctor, in her agony.

The scene comes deep into the new Netflix film “Pain Hustlers,” and it feels bracingly real and tragic.

If only the rest of the movie, the latest in a string of opioid-themed films, felt the same. Instead, despite a high-powered cast featuring a reliably solid Emily Blunt, an expertly low-life Chris Evans and the gifted Catherine O’Hara, the film tries too hard to be something it isn’t, or shouldn’t be: slick and breezy and too clever for its own good, filled with mockumentary interviews, wild montages, and other tricks used to more disciplined effect in more accomplished films.

Not that Blunt isn’t an effective presence here as Liza Drake, a struggling, single Florida mom who works at a strip club but wants to move up in life — to be treated with respect, and to support her ailing teen daughter and her flighty mother. Indeed, Blunt carries the film with her intelligent and likable presence.

But that speaks precisely to the other big problem with the film, which is directed by “Harry Potter” vet David Yates and inspired by the article and book by Evan Hughes, telling the real-life tale of an opioid startup that intentionally mis-marketed a fentanyl spray meant for severe cancer pain. Here, the bare bones are the same, but Yates and screenwriter Wells Tower invent their own corrupt company and their own characters.

And the filmmakers seem determined to make their protagonist likable. In giving Liza a fairly ironclad excuse for her actions — her sweet, plucky daughter needs costly brain surgery — they take an easy way out. Not to mention that through most of the film, Liza believes (unbelievably, really, given her smarts) that she’s merely helping patients get the right drug. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see Blunt play a character who knew exactly what she was doing?

Instead, Liza claims at the start, looking back: “I did it for the right reasons.” And here’s sales rep Pete, her unscrupulous colleague: “This was 2011. Strictly speaking, we were not part of the opioid crisis.” Evans, leaning into the sleaze, is fun to watch throughout, though the filmmakers care oddly little about his backstory.

Then there’s Jackie, Liza’s mom, wacky but also steely, and, in the hands of a wonderful comic actor like O’Hara, vivid in everything she does. Lest you think Mom doesn’t approve of Liza's slippery new career, heck, she joins her at the company, and even makes moves on the boss — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

When we first meet Liza, she’s living in her sister’s garage. At the strip club, she meets Pete, who, mid-flirtation, suggests she come work for him, promising $100k in commissions in one year.

Liza’s daughter, Phoebe (Chloe Coleman, in a lovely performance) gets in trouble at high school, engaging in what one might call, um, arson. We also learn she suffers from epilepsy. She requires a stable environment, the doctor says. And then Liza and daughter get kicked out of the garage and move into a cheap motel, eating instant noodles. Liza reconsiders that job offer.

Outfitted with a fake resume — Pete, with a quick edit, gives her a biochem degree — Liza gets hired by Zanna, the company run by eccentric billionaire doctor Jack Neel (Andy Garcia, efficiently creepy) and proves a quick study. Against all odds, she finds a doctor (Brian D’Arcy James, playing against type as a sleazeball pain doc in need of a hair transplant) to write a prescription for Lonafen, a sublingual fentanyl spray. Soon she’s corralled him into a “speakers program” designed to bribe more doctors.

Moving quickly from sundresses to color-blocked power ensembles, Liza starts raking in commissions, and she and Pete hire a team of hungry salespeople. Pete likens what they’re doing to driving a few miles over the speed limit — technically illegal, but everybody does it. Meanwhile, Liza’s suddenly able to afford a condo fit for a king, buy Mom a car, and enroll Phoebe in private school.

Zanna, named for Neel’s own late wife, goes public, and is the industry’s new kid on the block. The company’s celebratory slogan, shouted at decadent parties: “We Own Cancer!”

But things start getting uncomfortable. Neel, increasingly paranoid, rejects Liza’s proposed compliance plan. Then, he decides the best way to improve flat sales is to market Lonafen off-label — for any kind of pain, even headaches.

Liza is aghast — Pete, not so much — but her daughter's condition worsens, and Medicaid won’t cover the operation. She needs cash. Then, patients start overdosing. The look one man’s widow gives a weeping Liza, wordless, is chilling.

The pace picks up as the law starts bearing down. But ultimately, “Pain Hustlers” feels like a retreading of the same ground covered in other recent works, bringing nothing especially new to the table and, in splitting the stylistic difference between slick/breezy and poignant/authentic, succeeding fully at neither.

“Pain Hustlers,” a Netflix release that begins streaming Friday, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association “for language throughout, some sexual content, nudity and drug use." Running time: 122 minutes. Two stars out of four.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press