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Following the 2021 Peabody-winning miniseries Dopesick and this year's Painkiller, both of which dramatized the role that the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma played in the widespread proliferation of highly-addictive opioids and subsequent overdose-related deaths in the United States, Netflix has just released a movie which delves deeper into a lesser-known facet of the crisis.
Pain Hustlers stars Chris Evans and Emily Blunt as two employees at a fictionalized pharmaceutical company who cut legal corners and take a hard sell approach to make money off a dangerously addictive drug, and soon find themselves in too deep as they get swept up in a criminal conspiracy.
Pain Hustlers is based on a journalistic account of opioid profiteering
The screenplay was written by Wells Tower, but the plot of the movie is heavily based on The Pain Hustlers, an exposé by Evan Hughes which ran in the New York Times in 2018.
The article detailed the various techniques that the pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics used to push its highly addictive fentanyl-based painkiller Subsys into the marketplace, including employing an attractive, charismatic staff of motivated sales reps, and recruiting doctors to recommend the drug to other prescribers via its "speaker program." Ostensibly a marketing tool, the speaker program was actually a front for bribery.
Key figures in this story—which Hughes later expanded into the nonfiction book The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup—included Insys founder John Kapoor, sales manager Alec Burlakoff, and speakers Xiulu Ruan and John Patrick Couch. All are now in prison; Ruan and Couch were charged with running a "pill mill," while Kapoor and Burlakoff found guilty of racketeering. Hughes also quotes Tracy Krane, a former employee at Insys, as a source multiple times; she no longer works in the pharma industry.
Fictionalized versions of these characters are presented in Pain Hustlers. Emily Blunt plays Liza Drake, a new hire at a pharmaceutical startup and possible stand-in for Tracy Krane, while Chris Evans plays ambitious company man Pete Brenner (presumably an analogue for Burlakoff), and Andy Garcia appears as their boss, an approximation of Kapoor.
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