‘Pain Hustlers’ Review: Emily Blunt and Chris Evans Say ‘Yes’ to Drugs in Taxing Opioid Pitcher Satire

Early in his career, comedian Kumail Nanjiani talked a little about a new drug called “cheese,” which, if you break down the ingredients, turns out to be Tylenol PM mixed with heroin. “So really, it’s heroin,” he joked. “Heroin is doing the heavy lifting.”

That phrase was running through my head as I watched “Pain Hustlers,” a whimsical and, yes, mostly painful satire of Big Pharma from director David Yates, who (“The Legend of Tarzan” aside) has spent the last 15 years making every increasingly complicated Harry Potter films. “Pain Hustlers” is the star-studded and largely true story of a company called Insys, a key player in America’s current opioid crisis. In 2012, Insys launched a fast-acting spray called Subsys, whose active ingredient was fentanyl. Guess what happened. People were hooked. People died. Insys became rich.

Liberally adapted by Wells Tower from Evan Hughes’ reporting on Insys, “Pain Hustlers” takes a dispiriting mockumentary approach to this tragedy, focusing on a handful of despicable salespeople who broke the rules to encourage doctors to prescribe Lonafin (the fictional Subsys film replacement) first to treat cancer pain and later for conditions as mild as migraines. They used one of the most ethically dubious tactics in the industry, inviting doctors to participate in sketchy speaking programs – once a legitimate peer-to-peer marketing strategy, but in fact just a scam to divert generous “honoraries” directly to doctors. prescribers’ pockets. Doctors (which, in the case of Subsys, included dentists and podiatrists).

In the film’s opening minutes, we meet Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), her mother Jackie (Catherine O’Hara), and a particularly nasty drug rep named Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), all pretending to be interviewed by an artsy documentary crew (resulting in in an unpleasant black and white format). A proper documentary treatment of the subject would be preferable, while Yates simply wants to establish the film’s irreverent tone, channeling Michael Bay by showing Liza driving her convertible across Florida’s Seven Mile Bridge. Liza’s character appears to be based on a line from Hughes’ New York Times Magazine story, in which it is revealed that Evans and Jay Duplass’ characters “hired a former exotic dancer named Sunrise Lee as a sales manager, and she helped to court [a shady doctor] as Insys speaker.”

Pete and Liza meet at the strip club, where she dazzles him with her powers of deduction (in a scene with no charm and less chemistry, it takes her less than a minute to figure out his agitation). Emily Blunt is and could easily play a bright young woman, but the white-trash side of the character – the dimension of seductive dressing and driving a pink Caddy that makes Liza interesting – seems more like an exaggeration. It seems suspicious that Blunt and/or Yates wanted to prove that Liza could be running this company, if only her upbringing had allowed her to receive an Ivy League education, but this approach undermines the joke that the guys running the company were using escorts as sales representatives. (To be clear, the film inexplicably has a doctor’s unscrupulous son do all the seduction.)

Liza is very professional and her instincts help Insys catch her first big fish. To keep her new job, her task is to get a single doctor to prescribe Lonafin before the company fails. (The film briefly mentions that each Lonafin prescription they buy is worth $40,000 a month.) In the last hour of her last day, Liza catches a whale named Dr. Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James), who sells a Lonafin pill. high volume. mill from his clinic in a shopping center. Lydell is as cartoonish as the film’s other characters, all of whom turn their easy wealth into visible upgrades. In his case, Lydell gets hair implants and a flashy new sports car. Liza gives up her Mary Kay cell phone, pays off debts, buys a two-story apartment by the sea and agrees to pay double the monthly fee to send her daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) to a private school.

Phoebe has an abnormal growth on her brain, which will likely require surgery. It’s a strange subplot in a movie about painkillers that makes your brain race before the story: Will Phoebe need a prescription for Lonafin that will leave her addicted, until her teeth fall out and she dies of an overdose? No, that fate is reserved for another one of Liza’s acquaintances (something must make her aware). What Phoebe’s condition does is effectively force the audience to sympathize with Liza, while also presenting her with a huge medical bill weeks before her shares vest. While everyone around him – most notably the increasingly eccentric billionaire (Andy Garcia) who funded the company – is trying to expand the use of Lonafin by any means necessary.

If the characters could justify their cheating before by saying they were offering painkillers to cancer patients, well, that’s no longer the case when they start going “off-label” — that is, prescribing the drug for treatments not yet approved by the FDA. . As everything starts to fall apart, Yates brings the film back to that ridiculous mock-document framing device. “This is all bullshit,” says an understandably upset opioid widow, turning the tables on the imaginary filmmaker. “You have your story. So what are you I am going to do?”

Does Yates really think his raucous satire has made audiences so angry that “Pain Hustlers” will force him to change the world? Nearly 200 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day. And fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, so whether you say “cheese” or Subsys or something else, we’re talking about a highly addictive and potentially lethal substance made to relieve pain but marketed to cause a lot of harm.

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