Blunt ‘the only reason to watch this’

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Pain Hustlers, a drama about the opioid epidemic, is “too worried about being a downer to be convincing”, writes Caryn James as the film premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film’s biggest problem is that Liza’s success seems unconnected to the deadly product she sells until very near the end. David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies and its Fantastic Beasts prequels, knows how to create a fluent narrative even here. But it’s as if he and the screenwriter, Wells Tower, were too timid to go all in on being entertaining about such an important subject, but too worried about being a downer to weave the dark side of the story through convincingly. That is a tricky balancing act, as demonstrated by Painkiller, which went so far the other way it bludgeoned viewers with the obvious.

In Pain Hustlers, one patient says in a quick word to the camera that Lonafen “gave me back my life for a minute”, but it’s left to us to recognise that minute is the point, even after we later see two of his teeth fall out in his hand. Instead, the story focuses on Liza and Zanna’s rise, the tone echoing their euphoria as the company soars from near-bankruptcy to the top of the market. Catherine O’Hara has brief but lively scenes as Liza’s wild-child mother, and Brian d’Arcy James plays a venal doctor who is also a buffoon. When the film turns more serious and leans into its moral issue, the shift registers as viewer whiplash.

And as much as Blunt gives her life, Liza is finally too artificial a construction, made to appeal to us as the best version of the pain hustler she is. Her daughter desperately needs medical care that insurance won’t cover, a blatant device to justify her choice to keep working for Zanna even after her conscience begins to kick in.

With the final credits we see real-life news reports about the inspiration for Garcia’s character, Dr John Kapoor, who was convicted of bribery. By then Pain Hustlers has veered too far into fantasyland for anything real to matter.


Pain Hustlers is released in select US cinemas on 20 October and on Netflix internationally on 27 October.

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