Pain Hustlers (R)
Our medical system is broken is the big takeaway from Pain Hustlers, a fictional tale of pharmaceutical salespeople framed as a documentary.
Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) is an exotic dancer working the lunch shift to attempt to make enough money to cover her and her teen daughter Phoebe’s (Chloe Coleman) bills. After losing that job because she has to rush to get Phoebe out of some high school trouble, Liza calls Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a pharmaceutical salesman who offered her a job a day earlier he was unsuccessfully trying to woo a doctor at her club. She shows up with a probably inflated resume and he inflates it further before introducing her to Dr. Jack Neel (Andy Garcia), the head of the drug company that is at the moment circling the drain. Their spray-under-the-tongue fentanyl-based pain medication can’t crack into the market currently dominated by a fentanyl lollipop. Liza gets a one-week tryout — get a doctor to prescribe the spray and she’s got a job with extremely good commissions; fail and she’s out. At the last minute of the work week Liza gets Dr. Nathan Lydell (Brian d’Arcy James) to prescribe the drug to one patient — and she gets him on the hook for more prescriptions by signing him on to the company’s speaker program, a thing she created as she pitched him. Pharmaceutical speaker programs are, as Pete explains to us, a common way to thank high-prescribing doctors wherein doctors get money for giving speeches to other doctors and the whole lavish event, with food and booze and drug reps in tight dresses, is paid for by the pharmaceutical company. Though Liza and Pete begin their program on a shoestring, they are able to get Lydell prescribing and then expand their reach to other doctors, first in Florida and then spreading nationwide. Along the way, Liza gets a series of promotions and is able to improve life dramatically for herself and Phoebe — moving from a motel to a waterfront apartment and getting Phoebe into a private school.
Of course, growing a market means that these drugs, meant for cancer patients in extreme pain, need to constantly find new customers and at higher doses, so the company starts pushing doctors to prescribe to other kinds of patients and then offering reps higher commissions on more potent versions. Though Liza desperately needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to pay for a brain surgery for Phoebe not covered by their insurance, she starts to worry that they’re not just helping suffering cancer patients but addicting people.
Blunt does a good job at giving us a rounded portrait of a woman who is trying to work her way out of poverty and is neither a saint nor an amoral cutthroat about how she does that. She hungers for respectability and the security but she isn’t willing to live with going beyond the gray area of doing, as Pete says, 67 in a 65. And Blunt and Evans have a nice chemistry as co-conspirators.
Not unlike Hustlers or The Big Short, Pain Hustlers gives you a con, with its entertaining build and its inevitable fall with a bit of bounciness, but it doesn’t completely look away from the idea that it all came at the expense of people who just wanted to not be in pain and live their lives. B-
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, nudity and drug use, according to the MPA at filmratings.com. Directed by David Yates with a screenplay by Wells Tower (and based loosely on the New York Times magazine article by Evan Hughes), Pain Hustlers is two hours and two minutes long and distributed by Netflix, where it is streaming.
Five Nights at Freddy’s (PG-13)
The animatronic mascots at an abandoned family restaurant get murderous in Five Nights at Freddy’s, a horror movie based on a video game franchise.
Which I’ve never played — to me this is just a movie with not-bad bones: animatronic mascots forgotten and slowly decaying, abandoned riff on a Charles Entertainment Cheese-like establishment, a night watchman who has just enough trauma and sleep issues that maybe he could be hallucinating.
Mike (Josh Hutcherson) is that security guy, taking an exceptionally terrible job at this obviously haunted/cursed/just sad long-closed restaurant. He will accept basically any employment to remain a viable guardian for his young sister Abby (Piper Rubio), orphaned/abandoned after the dissolution of their family due to the long-ago kidnapping of Mike’s young brother Garrett (Lucas Grant). Having blamed himself for the kidnapping for decades (Garrett went missing on a family camping trip and Mike is certain he must have seen the kidnapper), Mike uses a variety of sleep aids to push him back to the memory of that moment. So he sleeps but never rests and works the night shift while trying to care for his quiet, troubled-seeming sister — a perfect recipe for a guy who isn’t sure what to believe when the animatronics at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza start to act sentient.
The movie doesn’t really pay off on either the fun or the creepiness of this setup. Instead we get a movie that can’t seem to figure out how dark it wants to be mixed in with a child custody plot and the appearance of Police Officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), whose whole deal makes less sense the more we learn about her. C-
Rated PG-13 for strong violent content, bloody images and language throughout, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Emma Tammi with a screenplay by Scott Cawthon and Seth Cuddeback & Emma Tammi, Five Nights at Freddy’s is an hour and 50 minutes long and is released by Universal Studios. It’s in theaters and streaming on Peacock.
Old Dads (R)
Bill Burr plays a version of himself as a Gen X-er raising a young son in a millennial and zoomer world in the Netflix comedy Old Dads.
Jack Kelly (Burr) has a son in preschool and another kid on the way with wife Leah (Katie Aselton). He lives in a nice suburban house in Los Angeles and has recently sold the profitable T-shirt business he owned with fellow Xers and longtime friends Mike (Bokeem Woodbine) and Connor (Bobby Cannavale). He has what appears to be a nice life and yet he is filled with a rage at the annoyances of the modern world, most of which he expresses in a “you know what’s wrong with your generation?” rant. His aggravation seems particularly acute in dealing with zoomer Aspen Bell (Miles Robbins), the new head of the T-shirt company where Jack, Mike and Connor still have to work (and behave) to cash in on their equity.
There is comedy to be mined in generational differences and raising a child as a parent in their 40s or 50s versus 20s or 30s — the difference between, for example, how an older parent would relate to a peer-aged teacher versus a younger teacher, or how older and younger parents might approach managing their kids. But the movie goes more for the low-hanging fruit of just mocking the performatively progressive upperclass Angeleno. We don’t really get a Gen X-versus-Millennials showdown or one guy’s experiences as an older parent.
It’s more just an angry audience surrogate ranting at the very online.
A bigger problem for Old Dads is that all of the life-stuff Burr addresses here — raising kids as a person in middle age, overcoming general knee-jerk anger, generational differences, marriage stuff, the times in which we live — is addressed much more sharply, smartly and funnily in Burr’s own standup, a lot of which is also available on Netflix. If you want Burr’s angry-Northeasterner take on all that, done with humility and nuance and self-awareness, seek those shows out. If you’re just looking for a comedy with adults swearing and an occasional moment of sitcom-y “ha, funny,” sure, Old Dads has that. Just not as much of that second part as I would have liked. C+
Rated R for pervasive language, sexual material, nudity and brief drug use, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Bill Burr and co-written by Bill Burr & Ben Tishler, Old Dads is an hour and 44 minutes long and distributed by Netflix, where it is currently streaming.
Even Jason Statham is not strong enough to carry the lifeless fourth outing of a jokey action series in Expend4bles.
It gives me no pleasure to say that, because I generally like this series and the “action stars of previous decades super-group” philosophy around which it’s built.
Here, Statham’s Lee Christmas is basically the center of the story after Barney (Sylvester Stallone), head of the CIA freelancer group The Expendables, is sidelined during a failed mission to get nuclear whatevers from Libya before bad guy Rahmat (Iko Uwais) can steal them for badder guy Ocelot, a mystery villain Barney battled in the past. Gina (Meghan Fox) takes over running the Expendables show with their CIA handler Marsh (Andy Garcia) taking a more hands-on role as they pursue Rahmat.
Lee, pushed out of the group for a nonsense reason, tries to go it alone to chase Rahmat and Ocelot, turning for some assistance to Decha (Tony Jaa).
In addition to Stallone and Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture are among the original expendables still in play. Terry Crews, Jet Li and Arnold Schwarzenegger sit this one out along with the last film’s additions, which included Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Ronda Rousey. Instead, we get Fox, Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent), Jacob Scipio and Levy Tran who do not have the sparkle of those OG members.
Also missing here is an overall sense of fun. We don’t get any cutesy surprise cameos a la Chuck Norris in the second movie or Harrison Ford in the third — and of course no Bruce Willis, who appeared in the first two. This kind of 1980s/1990s action star wattage was a load-bearing element of those earlier entries and its lack here leaves the movie an overall shakier structure (outside of Jaa, a star who rose in the aughts and who is a nice addition).
Strip those things away and issues that have probably always been there are more keenly felt. Such as, this isn’t the snappiest dialogue ever written and the actors speak it as though this is the first time they’ve ever seen these lines. The story doesn’t, at all, make sense and yet it’s nearly not bonkers enough.
Perhaps new to this movie is how slow everything feels. Sure, there’s punching and kicking and explosions, but it feels like we’re getting these elements delivered in more of a low-flow stream than the non-stop punch-splosion you’d want. C
Rated R for strong/bloody violence throughout, language and sexual material, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Scott Waugh with a screenplay by Kurt Wimmer & Tad Daggerhart and Max Adams, Expend4bles is an hour and 43 minutes long and distributed by Lionsgate and is available for rent or purchase via VOD.
Reggie, a good-natured rube of a small fluffy dog voiced by Will Ferrell, has the sudden realization that his owner is garbage in Strays, a live-action, extremely-R-rated dog adventure comedy.
Reggie (voice of Ferrell, doing peak Elf-ish Ferrell) thinks he’s playing a challenging game of fetch when his dirt-bag human Doug (Will Forte) drives him miles away from their home, throws a ball and then drives away. Reggie retrieves the ball and always manages to return, much to the annoyance of Doug, who never wanted a dog and only kept Reggie in the breakup with his girlfriend to be a jerk. Reggie just wants Doug to acknowledge that he, Reggie, is a good-boy dog.
But during a particularly far-afield game of fetch, Reggie realizes in telling French bulldog Bug (voice of Jamie Foxx), Hunter (voice of Randall Park) and Maggie (voice of Isla Fisher) about Doug that Doug is in fact a terrible owner. Reggie decides to hurt Doug by taking away the one thing that Doug truly cares about in life — one R-rated piece of Doug’s anatomy. Bug, a stray dog, and Hunter and Maggie, dogs with laissez faire owners, decide to travel with Reggie to find Doug and see if Reggie really will, uhm, get him where it hurts.
I had few expectations for this movie beyong hoping that it would be not too boring, maybe even mildly entertaining. And it clears that bar of extremely mild entertainment. Most of the humor is based on dog behavior — eating gross stuff, sniffing other dogs’ bums, humping things — and most of it is fine, not particularly smart but not aggressively off-putting. Pre-existing Will Ferrell-ness helps to make Reggie a character we can project personality. Occasionally the movie has a funny bit (there is a runner about an invisible fence) or a cute cameo and I found myself often thinking “ha” without actually laughing. C+
Rated R for pervasive language, like seriously, and crude and sexual content (also, really and a lot) and drug use, like this is rated R don’t let the dogs fool you, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Josh Greenbaum with a screenplay by Dan Perrault, Strays is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Studios. It is available for rent or purchase and it is streaming on Peacock.
Featured photo: Pain Hustlers.