A Real Pain (Sundance) Review

Connie Queline

A Real Pain (Sundance) Review

Jesse Eisenberg’s A Real Pain is a gem of a film featuring superb performances from the director and Kieran Culkin.

PLOT: Estranged cousins David (Jesse Eisenberg) and Benji (Kieran Culkin) join a holocaust tour in Poland to fulfill the dying request of their late grandmother.

REVIEW: A Real Pain is Jesse Eisenberg’s second film as a director and marks a substantial leap in quality since his pleasant – but minor – first effort, When You Finish Saving the World. With a tight running time, evocative location shooting, and two terrific performances at its heart, it’s no wonder this scored one of Sundance’s biggest deals, with Searchlight shelling out a cool $10 million for it.

At its heart, the film is a character study, allowing Jesse Eisenberg’s David and Kieran Culkin’s Benji to spar over eighty minutes without making their holiday too earth-shattering an event, with characters ending the film just as broken (or not) as the movie began. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen in recent memory to get the vibe of a holiday just right, as when you end a trip – no matter how intense the journey has been – there’s a moment when you arrive back home and realize that you’re the same person you were when you left. This can either be a reassuring feeling or a melancholy one. 

Despite being formerly close cousins, David and Benji are a mismatched pair. While outwardly neurotic, Eisenberg’s David is far more content in his life, having a loving family and a stable job to go home to. By contrast, Culkin’s Benji is out of sorts, with his bluster and outgoing vibe masking a deep melancholy no one trip will solve. Religiously, they’re also different, with David being more laissez-faire about his Judaism and only agreeing to the trip because he knows it would be a nice thing to do for his cousin. 

a real pain review

Both men give terrific performances. Eisenberg specializes in playing neurotic types, and he casts himself to perfection. But, he also subverts the stereotype that someone neurotic is always miserable, with him the opposite. He hits many subtle grace notes here, such as the grin on his face when he watches videos of his toddler on his phone while his cousin is asleep.

In contrast, Culkin’s Benji has the charisma David lacks, but it comes at a cost. He’s a wanderer, someone who’s never content with his lot in life, and one who lashes out passive aggressively at whoever is closest to him, be it David or the group’s non-Jewish, English tour guide, played by The White Lotus star Will Sharpe. Culkin has been long overdue for some recognition, and it’s nice to see him getting roles outside of Succession that prove what a first-class actor he is. 

Notably, the film was shot on location in Poland and shines an uncomfortable light on the country’s Holocaust history, with one striking sequence illustrating how close the concentration camps were to the city. In most movies dealing with the Holocaust, we only see the concentration camps as removed, almost otherworldly hellscapes. A Real Pain takes the same approach as The Zone of Interest, showing that the most inhumane crimes against humanity happened in plain site of all. 

Yet, while A Real Pain could have been a depressing history lesson, Eisenberg keeps the vibe somewhat light as the two cousins riff and get to know each other again. The rest of the holocaust tour is nicely filled out, with Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey as a recent divorcee rediscovering her roots. Kurt Egyiawan is terrific as a Rwandan convert who found a kinship with the faith as a survivor of genocide in his own home country and the virtue of his family immediately being embraced by the Jewish community in Winnipeg. 

For one, one of the impressive things about A Real Pain is how Eisenberg doesn’t seem to be overreaching with his narrative. He’s not trying to break your heart or rivet you. He’s simply showing you an intelligent, empathetic slice of life that says a lot without needing to say much at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film turns into a nice little hit for Searchlight, with both Culkin and Eisenberg delivering superb performances. 

9

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