Netflix continues its streak of pharmaceutical-themed dramas with the release of “Pain Hustlers,” following the success of “Painkiller” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” adaptation. Starring Chris Evans and Emily Blunt, this dark comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is based on a true story. In order to give you a clearer understanding of the film, we have compiled an explainer for “Pain Hustlers” that distinguishes the truth from fiction.
“Pain Hustlers” is inspired by a 2018 investigative article by Evan Hughes for the New York Times Magazine, which delves into the story of Insys, a pharmaceutical company founded by billionaire John Kapoor. Insys marketed an opioid product called Subsys, a powerful pain medication initially intended for cancer patients experiencing “breakthrough” pain. However, Insys added a spray delivery system, branding it as a premium product. In the film, the opioid drug being sold is called Lonafin and the company is named Zanna.
John Kapoor utilized a controversial “speaker program” to persuade doctors to prescribe unnecessary and highly addictive medication to vulnerable patients. Kapoor’s actions resulted in his conviction in 2020, sentencing him to prison for bribing medical practitioners and engaging in a “racketeering conspiracy.” This unbelievable tale of a scrappy startup achieving success amidst patient suffering captivated Evan Hughes, who transformed his original article into the book “The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Start-Up.” Director David Yates discovered the book and developed it into a fictional narrative for the film, blurring the lines between truth and fiction.
While the movie draws inspiration from the book and article, it does inject humor into the story. Yates aimed to provide both entertainment and education, diverging from the tragic tone of the Insys story to create a more subversive and thrilling experience. By condensing the scope of events and focusing on character development, “Pain Hustlers” takes place in Florida, although Insys salespeople operated throughout the United States.
The film centers around the character Liza Drake, portrayed by Emily Blunt. Liza is a composite character representing multiple perspectives from the article. She is a single mother desperate to provide for herself and her daughter, but ends up entangled in the manipulative tactics of a sleazy corporation. Yates described Liza as emblematic of the young people who became part of Insys’ sales force, driven by ambition and unaware of the consequences. Similarly, Andy Garcia’s character, Jack Neel, is a fictionalized version of John Kapoor.
Pete Brenner, played by Chris Evans, closely resembles Alec Burlakoff, one of the article’s protagonists. Pete encounters Liza at a strip club, where she is on the verge of losing her job. Although the fictional characters allow for dramatization, the events depicted in “Pain Hustlers” remain consistent with the article. Liza’s fictional daughter’s epilepsy and brain tumor provide context for her decision-making, highlighting the moral dilemmas she faces as she realizes the extent of her deception.
Director David Yates emphasized that “Pain Hustlers” is not a detailed account of the Insys story, but rather draws inspiration from the pharmaceutical industry’s exploitative practices. By focusing on one small sector of healthcare, the film exposes the fringes of the industry where immense profits are made at the expense of marginalized patients. “Pain Hustlers” is a wild, anarchic, and morally captivating tale that will leave viewers contemplating the moral complexities of the pharma industry.
This article was written by Aimée Lutkin, the weekend editor at ELLE.com and author of “The Lonely Hunter” set to release in February 2022.
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