First Impression: Pain Hustlers” is a brash and disturbing look inside the pharmaceutical world, where we see a “based on a true story” scandal, and we see the opioid crisis in America unfold. The movie wants us to take it seriously, but it ends up being a shallow wannabe “Wolf of Wall Street” rip-off in its execution, where greed takes center stage and everyday Americans pay for it with their health and ultimately their lives.
When I first started watching the trailer for “Pain Hustlers,” it looked pretty interesting. What really got my attention was that in the first 15 seconds we see a down-on-her-luck woman named Liza (Emily Blunt) repeat her own personal creed: “I will not give up on myself, I will not give up on my dreams, I will make my life count.” Initially this sounds great and inspiring, and we want to root for her as a can-do American who’s willing to pick herself up by her bootstraps and make the American dream of becoming rich and successful for herself and her daughter a reality.
What we see unfold, however, is a disgusting display of unadulterated greed and grift where low level scumbags are able to influence and buy off medical doctors to prescribe their powerful and highly addictive pain relief drug, fentanyl. This is a drug that has plagued our nation with overdose deaths and painful addiction and that has created thousands of broken homes. Keep in mind this is a Hollywood story, where facts and fiction of what really happened get sliced up and distorted for “dramatic purposes” but it makes one want to investigate the true story to give some greater context to this mess of a film.
The film was inspired by a 2018 New York Times article written by Evan Hughes, who then made it into a nonfiction book entitled “Pain Hustlers.” The film ended up being strikingly close to the article in the way we see the rise of startup pharmaceutical companies who marketed fentanyl spray to cancer patients for pain management.
Andy Garcia plays the pharmaceutical company CEO (in real life a doctor named John Kapoor, who inspired the character). He turns out to be quite similar in his behavior: erratic, paranoid, and with an insatiable appetite for increasing profits every quarter.
Kapoor demanded that his sales reps push the opioid spray for all sorts of pain ailments, not solely those caused by cancer. This in turn led to many patients becoming addicted. Once doctors started cutting patients off, it was too late, as many were either overdosing what medicine they had left or were switching to a cheaper alternative, like heroin.
This added context only makes me angrier in how the film treats the subject matter. The director wanted to go for a stylized take on how fast and rich the pharmaceutical reps were living, as opposed to the unsuspecting patients who ended up suffering the terrible fate of addiction.
We see Emily Blunt̕s character go from living in a motel with her daughter to living in one of the finest penthouses in Miami almost overnight, by peddling these drugs to doctors who had no sense of ethics or morals. Ultimately, her conscience got the best of her, leading her to turn their operation in to federal agents.
In the end, the characters responsible for the drug epidemic got what was coming to them — being sentenced to federal prison — but don’t be surprised at how lenient their punishment was… it will just get you more upset and bewildered.
Final Verdict 3 out of 5 Stars