A smirking (and closely fictionalized) rise-and-fall story of American greed that aspires to do for fentanyl what “The Wolf of Wall Avenue” did for Steve Madden, Netflix’s seriocomic “Ache Hustlers” is the primary magic and/or Tarzan-free film that “Improbable Beasts and The place to Discover Them” maestro David Yates has directed since 1998’s “The Tichborne Clarinet.” On paper, that sound like a mix of tone, subject material, and storyteller that in all probability shouldn’t work. On display screen, it completely doesn’t.
The issue with “Ache Hustlers” isn’t that its method to the opioid disaster feels glib (it does), or that Yates retains digitally inserting Dobby the elf into scenes of pharmaceutical gross sales reps pushing their newest medication on morally versatile medical doctors (he doesn’t), however reasonably that the movie takes a golden alternative to discover the determined private decisions that compounded into one among our most dire nationwide crises, and wastes it on the identical sort of superficial crime drama that’s already been made about myriad different “victimless crimes” and get-rich-quick schemes identical to it.
Lengthy on voiceovers, brief on specificity, and so excessive on the generic-brand Scorsese of all of it that it glosses proper over the grey areas that make its characters so tragic, Yates’ movie is extra targeted on being straightforward to swallow than it’s on meaningfully addressing the supply of the ache.
Sarcastically, the strongest factor about this film is the fictional character that Wells Tower’s script invented out of entire material in an effort to make its supply materials — Evan Hughes’ 2022 e book, “Ache Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup” — extra digestible. A convincingly hard-nosed and tenacious Emily Blunt stars as Liza Drake, a single mother who’s struggling to make ends meet as a stripper in Florida circa 2011. It’s all unhappy lap dances and spectacularly disguising her British accent till the day a skeezy pharma gross sales rep named Pete Brenner (Chris Evans, desperately making an attempt to mine a three-dimensional character from a job that by no means will get extra difficult than “Boston grifter”), stumbles into her membership and offers her a job alternative in lieu of a tip.
Quicker than you possibly can say “keep in mind when that film ‘Love & Different Medicine’ kinda tried this as a rom-com?,” Liza is visiting essentially the most unscrupulous medical doctors within the state — personified by Brian d’Arcy James’ slimy Dr. Lydell — and prevailing upon them to prescribe Zanna Prescription drugs’ new marvel drug Lonafen. As far as our cash-strapped heroine is anxious, her profitable new gig virtually appears like a public service: Why ought to mouth most cancers sufferers affected by super quantities of ache should suck on a slow-acting fentanyl lollipop that causes lesions after they may very well be sublingually delivering the stuff into their bloodstream 10 occasions sooner simply by sticking it beneath their tongues? In any case, billionaire Zanna CEO Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia in hushed germaphobe mode), who misplaced his personal spouse to most cancers, paid for a medical research that recommended that the drug posed no danger of habit to an amazing proportion of sufferers.
But when creating drugs is an actual science, working towards it’s open to interpretation, and that’s the place the difficulty begins. Like so many companies beneath capitalism, Zanna is satisfied that it has to develop in an effort to survive; it treats most cancers with a cancerous mentality. At first, which means making a “speaker program” designed to get inclined medical doctors on the payroll, however greed begets extra greed, and it’s solely a matter of time earlier than Liza will get the go-ahead to start selling Lonafen for off-label makes use of. Have a headache? Attempt some fentanyl. Stubbed your toe? Take 10 milligrams and name again within the morning in case you can nonetheless really feel your face.
On some stage, Liza is aware of that she’s breaking the regulation, however Pete likens it to driving 67 M.P.H. in a 65 M.P.H. zone. It’s a compelling analogy, and one which Liza clings to as soon as her daughter is recognized with an epileptic situation that will require main (learn: dear) mind surgical procedure. “Ache Hustlers” by no means utterly lets its heroine off the hook, but it surely’s clear that the American healthcare system is the true villain right here. For all its foolishness, Yates’ movie is aware of that we dwell in a terminally unwell society — a society the place the cash that individuals make is the last word painkiller that saves them from having to really feel the ill-effects firsthand.
To the restricted extent that “Ache Hustlers” works, it does so by specializing in the human facet of taking advantage of habit and distress. And to the restricted extent that it makes Liza a compelling character, it does so by specializing in her want to really feel secure — to not get wealthy, however reasonably to reduce the nerve-shredding insecurity of getting to look after her daughter and her judgmental mom (a stable Catherine O’Hara, whose casting displays the film’s unrealized comedian ambitions). These relationships aren’t poorly served by a script that shares Zanna Prescription drugs’ overeagerness to maintain getting greater and greater on the expense of getting something proper, however Blunt is ready to promote Liza’s self-conflicted morality simply as successfully as Liza is ready to promote Lonafen. However she ultimately is pressured to ask herself the identical query that so a lot of her victims are by no means clear-headed sufficient to ask themselves: At what level does ache reduction begin to damage?
It’s a query that “Ache Hustlers” isn’t a lot excited by answering, because the film would reasonably trip the highs of Zanna’s preliminary success — and white-knuckle its approach by means of the corporate’s reversal of fortune — than decelerate lengthy sufficient to clock what all of it means. Self-delusion turns into a continuing chorus (“I did it for the suitable causes,” Liza insists in the course of the hacky fake interviews that bookend the movie), and scammy posturing stands in for character development throughout virtually each scene (“You promote what’s in your bag,” Pete affords as each a philosophy and an excuse), however all of these things is so over-the-counter that it’d as nicely be about any racket in American historical past.
Our intrinsic greed is little doubt a part of the purpose, however tales can solely be so “timeless” earlier than they not turn out to be value telling, and the repeated use of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” isn’t, it seems, a adequate stand-in for mining much less hackneyed materials from scenes of drug pushers getting their comeuppance, least of all in a movie that lacks each the abdomen to look nearer on the loss and heartache its characters left behind, and the imaginative and prescient required to dramatize how they managed to look the opposite approach. “Ache Hustlers” is nicely conscious that it’s telling a story as previous as America itself, however that in the end leaves the movie with even much less of an excuse for not telling it higher.
“Ache Hustlers” premiered on the 2023 Toronto Worldwide Movie Pageant. Netflix will launch it in choose theaters on Friday, October 20, earlier than making it out there to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, October 27.