Pain Hustlers tries too hard to be compelling, failing to highlight the raw talents within its grasp and the detail that leaning into the emotional crux of the characters could’ve made it better. The year 2023 can and should be Emily Blunt’s year as a performer—between Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and now David Yates’ Pain Hustlers, Blunt continues to remind us that she’s an incomparable force in Hollywood.
In more ways than one, Pain Hustlers is actually quite painful to watch. The run time feels plungingly long, and the narrative flounders consistently as it tries to highlight the details surrounding the opioid crisis. It’s hard to determine what’s based on true events, and quite frankly, it’s hard to care about the story beyond the mother and daughter relationships throughout. There’s sadly nothing unique in the directing style, and even though it’s grand to see David Yates outside of the Harry Potter films, the film lacks any sort of substance necessary to draw attention.
Still, Pain Hustlers is at its best when it digs into society and allows human emotions to come centerfold. Blunt is strongest (and an absolute force to be reckoned with) when Liza Drake gets to be a mother, bringing excellent chemistry to our screens with Chloe Coleman’s Phoebe. It’s in these quiet moments where the film’s heart comes to the surface, drawing all the necessary emotions from the audience. It’s hard to believe a film featuring Blunt and Andy Garcia feels this dry at times, though their screen time together is nothing but superb, even when the dialogue feels choppy.
Catherine O’Hara is also fantastic, but truly, the film belongs to Emily Blunt in every way as the one performer whose scenes ground a character who could’ve otherwise felt shallow and careless. Blunt delivers an effortlessly heartfelt interpretation, showcasing a full range of emotions at every turn. The film’s thematic attention to the idea of making one’s life count is beautifully showcased through the role, allowing the repetition of that mantra to draw the necessary emphasis on emotions.
The end might be its most influential exhibition of the crisis the film wants to stand out for, but the painfully slow middle and awkward bouts of comedy don’t allow that ending to feel earned. If it were stronger, perhaps, it’d stick the landing, but it’s hard to say it does when the overall essence of the film feels as though it’s lacking far more nuance. The pacing is all over the place, and even though Evans’ character should work, it sadly doesn’t. He’s certainly no Ransom Drysdale here. This likely won’t be a memorable villainous or complex role for him, which is a shame.
Still, Pain Hustlers is at its best when it digs into the perils of mothers and daughters—the desperation that comes from wanting to do everything in your power to protect the one person you care about most. This is where Blunt shines, and if the film merely focused its attention entirely on this point, eliminating dramatic angles and cutting down a bit, it could have been far more captivating. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it could have undoubtedly been better where plot and pacing are concerned. A film centered around opioids shouldn’t try to be funny if it’s attempting to shine a light on the crisis and medicine as a whole. While humor and serious intent can mix together to create something palatable, this one fails to understand the depth of the what it’s trying to convey.
Pain Hustlers is now streaming on Netflix.