Perhaps since the premiere of “Dopesick”(2021), which came 2 months after Sony Pictures Entertainment announced the development of “Pain Hustler” in August 2021, the latter is destined to fight a battle with no chance of winning. In the past two years, the producers and creators of Pain Hustlers have probably been thinking: how can they film a show on drug addiction after the success of "Dopesick"? Unfortunately, the solution Pain Hustlers ultimately came up with was to make it a gimmicky cross between “The Wolf of Wall Street”(2013) and “American Hustle”(2013). After “Pain Hustlers” was finally acquired by Netflix and put into production, “Painkiller”(2023), another work about drug abuse and the medical system behind it, also produced by Netflix, was launched. People's feedback on Painkiller further foreshadowed the fate of “Pain Hustlers”: As another streaming media big data commercial movie that uses social issues as a new tool for ‘wokewashing’, it is destined to fail to gain much popularity.
Is “Pain Hustlers” watchable? The answer is yes - provided that you hope to get nothing more than entertainment and information from a movie. This is also how its favorers have defended it - now that it is already both watchable and thought-provoking, what more can you ask for? But that's exactly the problem. “Pain Hustlers” tells the story of Liza (played by Emily Blunt), a blue-collar woman who works hard to raise her daughter, accidentally entering a pharmaceutical company, becomes a high-flying medical representative, and is finally arrested for her involvement in a fraud scheme. It is a very typical Hollywood narrative: success and the disillusionment of success. The style of this narrative itself has nothing to blame. The core of it is to show and convey certain social problems in modern Western society (especially modern American society) by portraying and finding ways to reconcile opposing ideas. In “Pain Hustlers”, the opposition is the clash between individualism (Liza’s personal dream of climbing up social ladders) and social values (American Dream of thrivingness and prosperity). It is not easy to realize such a narrative, as it requires the ability to strike a balance in between.
But Netflix didn't put much effort into it. It just took such a narrative template as a panacea for a commercial movie trying to touch on social issues in the Internet era. In fact, it should have thought more deeply about it on at least two levels:
First, the narrative of shattered success may be very applicable to financial themes (such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short”(2015)), or any other industries related to gambling (such as “American Hustle”), but it is not very suitable for the subject of drug abuse. More caution is required if it has to apply to this subject. The reason is that drug abuse (especially prescription drugs with no clear medical definition of efficacy) is more closely related to human life, disease, and pain than finance, gambling, etc. Innocent people are dying from this issue at home, in hospitals, and on the streets every day, and yet little seems to be done to prevent more suffering. In other words, this is an "ongoing" issue, and its related policies, systems and even people's ideas about it have not yet been settled. However, when dealing with an issue with hidden societal turbulence where parties at odds with one another have not yet reached an agreement, “Pain Hustlers” skips the digging (meaning creating depth to its narrative) and opts for an simplified approach. It focuses on a person’s journey to success, with some slight touches on the darkness of the industry, making the film a cliché of a nobody who first achieves success by selling drugs before getting arrested and then make some words of self-reflection and atonement. It fails to realize the goal of the narrative - to present and transfer the real-life crisis, let alone bring emotional relief to the audience.
Second, the typical disillusioned personal success narrative appears to be the usual “reconciliation ending”, which, in fact, carries a critical undertone with concern. For example, in “The Big Short”, you can clearly see that the comedy of the protagonist group is based on the tragedy of the entire financial bubble of mankind. The more profit-seeking and successful the protagonists become, the more illusory the financial system appears. We share their excitement when they succeed at the beginning through financial approaches, gambling or even because we hold the universal view that these behaviors are undoubtedly wrong and they will eventually be caught. As audience, we are relieved of the moral burden while watching, so we can be fully immersed.
But in the early part of “Pain Hustlers”, which describes how Liza achieves success, this criticality disappears, and it becomes pure success science. The director removes Liza's moral burden without doubt, making her firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with what she is doing and taking it as beneficial for society and helping people eliminate their pain. So as a viewer, it's difficult for me to emphasize with Liza. Liza’s naivete, or stupidity, is disingenuous - both to the character and the creator - at least as a viewer, I don’t even believe it. This feeling of doubt is as also evident in her self-statement in the final trial - she says that she originally wanted to say how stupid and innocent she was before, but she now changes her mind, admitting all what she did. That’s no surprise. After all, how can we be made to believe in something she doesn’t even believe herself?
This is not the only cynical attempt of “Pain Hustlers” to be both entertaining and profound. Another would be the seemingly smart inclusion of many pseudo-documentary-style interviews. In these scenes of trials, which were deliberately processed into black-and-white color, each character’s acting overkill (for example, their facial and body expressions are too relaxed and confident) make them look boastful - (everyone!) except for Emily Blunt (perhaps only because of her inclination to the miserably inward acting style). These images, intended to bring a sense of reality, are actually further away from it only to alienate the audience. I don't see any sincerity in it. For me, what they present is a show of nothing but “the impact drugs on my life”, or a sheer villain like Chris Evans who never admits his fault.
Now it comes to a question: can’t a movie just be entertaining as well as informative without demanding for more? My answer is a certain yes, and commercial films that can manage to achieve this are actually successful ones. The problem with “Pain Hustlers” is that its subject matter is not suitable for this overly commercial narrative mode; it has made too many mistakes when applying it. This ultimately resulted in its entertainment effect overshadowing the serious social consciousness behind the subject matter.