Yates teases: He opens his film on a staged black and white documentary, as a brash Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) explains his shock and disappointment that Liza would betray him. She begins as a mystery woman, an unlikely mother with a GED education who brought down an empire. When Yates switches away from the in-film documentary to the semi-fictional (“Pain Hustlers” is an inspired adaptation of Evan Hughes’ non-fiction work The Hard Sell), world of the picture, Liza is living in her sister’s basement with her mother (Catherine O’Hara). During the day, she takes her rebellious daughter Phoebe (Chloe Coleman) to school; at night, she works as an exotic dancer at a strip club.
Wells Tower’s congested screenplay, a work of saucy punchlines left to sour, concerns the desperation Liza feels: Not only have Liza and Phoebe been evicted from her sister’s garage, but Phoebe is battling seizures stemming from a lethal medical condition. The pair move to a motel whose noisy environment and loud environment also carries the potential of future episodes. Liza needs a break, quick. It arrives when Pete appears at her strip club. They begin to talk. He likes her tenacity; she sees an easy customer. An impressed Pete offers her a job, promising her six figures in her bank account before the end of the year. If that sounds too good to be true, it is. Pete works for a floundering pharmaceutical startup founded by Jack Neel (Andy Garcia). They sell fentanyl, a drug they promise isn’t addictive and works better and quicker than the usual pain relief provided to cancer patients. A competitive market of other pharmaceutical companies, who keep doctors from prescribing the company’s medication, is the only reason they haven’t gotten off the ground. Still, for Liza, working on commission is better than nothing.
Blunt is really the only reason to watch “Pain Hustlers.” She gives a game performance, but poor creative decisions undermine her, like ill-considered freeze frames and unnecessary uses of voiceover. As a character, Liza is also too simplistic. Through her grit, she gets a doctor to sign a prescription for fentanyl (the doctor gets a kickback; the startup gets the upfront money; she receives a percentage). Once she gets one doctor hooked, Liza and Peter go about paying other doctors to switch over to prescribing their drug. The company quickly grows, and Liza rises from the motel to a swank condo within six months, with Phoebe attending an expensive prep school. Business is so good that not only does Liza buy her mom a new car, but she gives her a job at the startup, too. Liza succeeds because of her dedication: She truly believes she’s helping people in pain, and in some way, she connects their suffering with her daughter’s seizures. Blunt understands that throughline, pulling it out but never explicitly showing that undercurrent.