Netflix’s Pain Hustlers delves deep into the tumultuous world of the American opioid crisis, weaving intricate narratives around its central characters. The story revolves around Liza Drake, whose life takes a dramatic turn after being recruited by a high-ranking pharmaceutical executive. This association pushes her into a whirlwind of events intimately connecting her to the larger epidemic sweeping the nation.
Set in Florida in 2011, Pain Hustlers introduces us to Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a woman mired in financial difficulties. As a single mother, she strives to give her teenage daughter Phoebe a better life but constantly falls short.
In the backdrop, there’s the story of a business she co-founded with her ex-husband. Liza’s oversight in managing legal documents proved costly as post-divorce, her manipulative ex-husband capitalized on this, assuming full control of their enterprise.
As the narrative begins, Liza resides in her sister Andy’s garage. What was supposed to be a week-long arrangement has extended to two months, straining their relationship and leading to an intense confrontation between the siblings.
Relocating from Andy’s garage, Liza and Phoebe find themselves in a budget motel located in a rather dubious neighborhood. Despite the distance and her own challenges, Liza’s mother, Jackie, remains connected to her daughter.
Jackie is working on pursuing her dreams, tirelessly crafting and trying to sell her homemade beauty products. Meanwhile, Liza grapples with her current occupation: she dances at a strip club, a role that she neither relishes nor feels confident in.
However, the pressing need for a stable income forces her to stay. It’s during one of these taxing shifts that she crosses paths with a man, whose audacity about his affluence and his ability to transform anyone’s financial situation catches her attention.
This individual is Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a high-ranking executive at the pharmaceutical giant Zanna, who introduces himself to Liza. Taken by Liza’s wit and charisma, Pete extends an offer for her to join his team, with an attractive promise of earning up to a hundred thousand dollars.
Given her past experiences, Liza is naturally skeptical of such propositions from men and dismisses Pete’s proposal outright.
However, circumstances conspire against her. After her eviction from her sister’s garage and subsequent move to a rundown motel, Liza’s situation deteriorates further when she loses her car due to missed payments. Despite these setbacks, her resolve to not only secure a better future but also contribute meaningfully to the world remains unshaken.
Driven by this determination, Liza reconsiders Pete’s offer. When an attempted phone call to him goes unanswered, she resourcefully tracks down Zanna’s office online. With nothing but sheer determination, she makes her way to the company’s premises, hoping to secure the job.
Upon entering Zanna Pharmaceuticals, Liza finds Pete and the company’s primary investor, Dr. Jack Neel, engrossed in discussions with a group of potential investors.
Contrary to the image of financial stability that Pete portrayed at the strip club, Zanna has been losing money for an extended period, with their strategies falling short in reversing the tide.
The main challenge? Even though their painkiller, Lonafen, had been identified by a reputable research institution as one of the least addictive opioids with minimal side effects, doctors continued to preferentially prescribe competitors’ drugs. This situation rendered Zanna’s superior product overshadowed in the market.
Unaware of Zanna’s internal challenges, Liza approaches Pete regarding the job proposition. While her lack of formal academic credentials, owing to her college dropout status, and her inexperience are initial concerns for Pete, he can’t help but recognize her innate potential.
However, anticipating resistance from the higher-ups, Pete elaborates on Liza’s resume, fabricating a Ph.D. and other impressive academic achievements.
He then introduces her to Dr. Neel. Her charisma and conduct make an immediate positive impression on the senior executive. Liza is swiftly offered a position at Zanna but with a caveat: she’s on a probationary period of seven days.
If she doesn’t deliver within this timeframe, her tenure at Zanna would be short-lived. Her task? Secure a commitment from at least one physician to consistently prescribe Lonafen to patients.
Pain Hustlers ending explained in detail:
How does Liza navigate the pharmaceutical business?
Upon stepping into the pharmaceutical landscape, Liza quickly understands the intricate web of relationships and favors that underpin her new role.
The task of persuading doctors is less about the efficacy of the drug and more about navigating the murky waters of personal biases and unofficial incentives.
The initial days at Zanna are challenging for Liza, with every door seemingly shut in her face. As if professional roadblocks weren’t enough, Liza’s personal life takes a harrowing turn as Phoebe unexpectedly suffers a seizure.
A consultation with a specialist reveals a tangle of blood vessels in her brain. Although the doctor advises there’s no immediate need for surgery, Phoebe’s condition deteriorates alarmingly soon after.
Facing mounting personal and professional pressures, Liza seizes an unexpected opportunity to advocate for Lonafen. Renowned local doctor, Nathan Lydell, who has been an ardent prescriber of a competitor’s opioid, finds himself cornered when a distraught patient and his wife confront him about the drug’s inefficacy and escalating addiction concerns.
Sensing the moment, Liza interjects, highlighting Lonafen’s superior attributes. The distressed wife’s insistence, coupled with Liza’s persuasive pitch, compels Dr. Lydell to broker a deal with Zanna.
Soon, Lydell becomes the face of Lonafen in speaker programs, which subsequently sways more physicians to endorse the drug.
From teetering on the brink of financial collapse, Zanna’s trajectory sharply pivots, largely attributed to Liza’s relentless efforts. When concerns about discrepancies in her CV arise, Dr. Neel, impressed with her contributions, dismisses them outright.
Instead, she finds herself elevated to the position of Vice President of Sales, while Pete ascends to the CEO’s chair.
Why does Liza turn against Zanna?
Following her meteoric rise at Zanna, Liza and Phoebe upgrade their living conditions, settling into a plush company-sponsored condo. Immersing herself in her role, Liza assembles a diverse team of representatives, including Jackie.
She believes deeply in the dual purpose of her job as she is not only advocating for a drug that alleviates cancer patients’ pain, but she’s also providing employment opportunities, particularly to women who, like her, once faced dire circumstances.
However, as murmurs of malpractice concerning Zanna and Lonafen, begin to gain traction, Liza remains defensive. She’s slow to recognize the devastating addiction crisis linked to the drug and turns a blind eye to the company’s questionable tactics to boost sales.
She clings to the narrative of the study that touted Lonafen’s limited addictive potential, unaware that the study was strategically manipulated by Zanna to showcase favorable results.
Liza’s unwavering faith in Zanna’s mission is jolted when the opioid crisis hits close to home. The tragic death of a former motel neighbor due to Lonafen’s addiction serves as a stark reality check.
However, the defining moment of introspection for Liza comes when Jackie becomes intimately involved with Dr. Neel, apparently to increase her sales commissions.
This transactional fling forces Liza to confront the moral compromises she’s made, recognizing that in her ambition, she’s commodified her own mother’s dignity. This realization instigates a profound internal conflict, prompting Liza to reevaluate her association with Zanna and the choices she’s made.
As Liza’s professional journey with Zanna takes her deeper into ethical gray areas, she is pressed to promote Lonafen prescriptions even for non-cancer patients who may not require such potent opioids.
Meanwhile, Phoebe’s health takes a concerning downturn, compelling Liza to seek financial assistance from Dr. Neel for her daughter’s medical needs.
Yet, instead of the expected compassion from someone in his position, Neel coldly advises Liza to channel her distress into working even harder. This callous response, mixed with the weight of her recent realizations, crystallizes Liza’s understanding that she has been enmeshed in a morally stunted corporate machine.
Is Zanna found guilty?
As the state prosecutors’ investigation tightens around Zanna Pharma, Liza courageously steps forward, providing insider knowledge about the company’s unsavory practices.
She aims to gather incriminating documents that implicate the higher-ups in the company, especially Pete and Neel, in illicit activities. Her covert operation is jeopardized when she’s caught red-handed by Pete, who, surprisingly, remains loyal to the company’s narrative of innocence.
The company’s dubious operations come under further scrutiny when Dr. Nathan Lydell is apprehended for issuing fraudulent opioid prescriptions.
Although the probe closes in on several senior executives of Zanna Pharma, Jack Neel remains untouched, with investigators unable to secure any conclusive evidence against him.
Concurrently, Liza manages to fund Phoebe’s much-needed medical operation, which is carried out successfully. It’s amidst a conversation with her mother, Liza stumbles upon a series of explicit emails exchanged between Jackie and Neel, detailing the company’s illicit sales tactics.
The revelation that Neel had responded to these emails proves his knowledge and complicity in the illegal operations. These email correspondences serve as the final nail in the coffin, enabling the authorities to arrest and subsequently convict Neel.
While he faces a sentence of over five years, Pete has already been incarcerated. During her court appearance, Liza openly admits her initial motivation for joining the company was monetary. Despite the prosecution’s plea for leniency, Liza is sentenced to fifteen months, acknowledging her role in the entire fiasco.
Pain Hustlers concludes on a redemptive note. After serving her sentence, Liza teams up with Jackie to launch their own venture, marketing Jackie’s skincare line.
Several former Zanna Pharma representatives, now in search of honest employment, are recruited by Liza’s new venture. The cinematic narrative wraps up with authentic news footage documenting the downfall of John Kapoor and Insys Therapeutics, the real-life pharmaceutical company that inspired the film’s plot.
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