In Pain Hustlers, Netflix returns to the world of opioids and pharma greed.

Released last week, the movie stars Emily Blunt as Liza Drake, a down-and-out single mom looking to provide for a daughter who has seizures. While working at a strip club, she has a chance encounter with Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), an executive at Zanna Therapeutics who hires her as a sales rep. 

The two-hour film is based on the book Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup by Evan Hughes. It is directed by BAFTA-winning director David Yates.

“I was intrigued by the pharma world, particularly the low-rent end of it, the workaday reps and sales teams striving to make a living in a hugely competitive business of dealing with people’’s pain,” Yates told Netflix.

Set in Tampa in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the movie tells a fictionalized version of the rise and fall of the now-defunct Insys Therapeutics. Andy Garcia portrays Zanna founder Jack Neel, who serves as an avatar for Insys’ disgraced leader John Kapoor.

Following in the footsteps of DopesickThe Dropout and Netflix’s own PainkillerPain Hustlers adheres to a now-standard story arc — lies fueled by greed lead to dire results — in its depiction of the big-money world of pharmaceuticals. Still, it takes a while for the film to flesh out the effects of a pharma startup aggressively pushing its roster of doctors to write hundreds of thousands of scripts for Lonafen, a fast-acting fentanyl spray that treats cancer pain.

Rather, Pain Hustlers devotes a considerable amount of time to detailing the seedier aspects of the pharma sales rep lifestyle. The film makes it clear that sex sells when it comes to getting script lift from doctors: Liza reads tips for a pharma rep starting out in the field, which note that a “low-cut blouse and a push-up bra” have been the standard wardrobe for the past 20 years. 

Pain Hustlers also plays on the idea that sales reps don’t need to be familiar with the product they’re selling or hold medical degrees. Zanna enlists a roster of underqualified, desperate pharma reps that are considered PHDs: “poor, hungry and dumb.” The overarching mantra? “If you own your territory, you own a doctor.” To that end, both Liza and Peter note that while larger pharma companies target doctors at blue-chip medical institutions, Zanna aims lower — namely, at desperate doctors who are as “greedy and horny as everyone else.”

The film also surveys the conflicts of interest associated with speaker programs, referring to them as “pharma’s dirty little secret.”

“Big Pharma’s about finding that gray line and getting without crossing over,” Peter says.

Pain Hustlers takes its fair share of artistic liberties with the Insys saga. Lonafen, for example, serves as a stand-in for Insys’ opioid spray Subsys. And toward the end of the movie, Brenner performs a playful rap about Lonafen at a sales rep conference while donning a costume that resembles the drug’s spray bottle. This is a callback to a music video created by Insys to push sales of Subsys, which became a matter of public knowledge during a 2019 trial.

Overall, Pain Hustlers amounts to yet another major entertainment project that focuses on the flawed aspects of the pharma industry. Companies may be seeking to recapture their pandemic-era reputational glory, but Pain Hustlers does them few favors to that end.