A Real Pain

Dir/scr: Jesse Eisenberg. US. 2023. 90mins

Two very different Jewish American cousins take a road trip to Poland in writer/director Jesse Eisenberg’s deeply felt second feature. A comedy-drama that can be uproariously funny but also possesses melancholy, the film explores the long, terrible shadow of the Holocaust while investigating modern-day guilt and the delicacy of familial bonds. Kieran Culkin impresses as the more free-spirited, selfish of the two, and he finds a complement in Eisenberg as a responsible father and husband who has never reconciled his feelings about his difficult, impossibly loving cousin.

Can be uproariously funny but also possesses melancholy

Screening in the US dramatic competition at Sundance, which was also the launchpad for Eisenberg’s 2022 directorial debut, When You Finish Saving The World, the film should court plenty of buyers, and strong reviews could translate to solid arthouse grosses. It may also see Culkin, a recent Emmy-winner for Succession, back in the awards conversation.

Cousins David (Eisenberg) and Benji (Culkin) have not seen each other for a while, but reunite to fly to Warsaw to take part in a Holocaust tour; the trip a gift bequeathed by their late grandmother, a survivor of the camps. Benji does not have much direction in his life, while David is a successful online ad salesman living in New York City with his wife and son.

The men’s lifelong connection is obvious — born three weeks apart, they are practically brothers — but, as they spend time with the tour group, David begins to notice  differences that have always been there. Benji is unapologetically opinionated and brusque, while David tends to be more muted and polite. Yet the rest of the people on the tour, including a sad divorcee (Jennifer Grey) and a kindly Rwandan recently converted to Judaism (Kurt Egyiawan) seem to gravitate toward Benji, no matter his occasionally combative personality.

So many films have tackled the underlying tensions between diametrically opposed family members, but here Eisenberg sidesteps cliches, consistently complicating our feelings about these nuanced cousins. Neither man is a cautionary tale; neither is the story’s clear rooting interest. But because A Real Pain is told more from David’s vantage point, it does view Benji as David does — as an unanswerable riddle. 

Big-hearted but troubled, Benji radiates an older-brother energy around David, teasing his uptight cousin while remaining largely affectionate. But, at the same time, Benji has a habit of undermining David in front of the other tourists, presenting himself as the fun cousin and David as dull. Culkin ably conveys both the character’s sweetness and passive-aggressiveness, his lack of manners and his genuine desire to connect with others. Benji may not behave ’properly’, but his unbridled sincerity can come across as refreshing and endearing. Blending charisma, anger and vulnerability, Culkin never allows the audience (or David) to settle on a final judgement about this man in flux.

Eisenberg has frequently portrayed neurotic, straight-laced types but, as David, he cuts through the stereotypes of such a role. David may be uptight, but he has a sharp sense of humour and a warm manner. The actors’ lighthearted rapport suggests cousins who know each other inside and out, although David fears bringing up an unspecified incident that recently happened to Benji – a hint of the darkness within that free spirit. Eisenberg deftly communicates his character’s conflicted emotions; David worries about Benji, but also resents how effortlessly cool his cousin is. 

This Holocaust tour will eventually visit a concentration camp, and it is a testament to the film’s restraint that this later sequence does not feel manipulative or exploitative. Eisenberg’s screenplay features a wealth of wry one-liners but, as the film grows more serious and thoughtful, it can bear the magnitude of incorporating the Holocaust into its modest narrative.  

These solemn scenes resonate with the film’s portrait of two cousins whose family history underlines the different ways individuals respond to tragedy. David and Benji will come to understand that they had very opposing views of their grandmother, and this trip into their family’s past unlocks what unites them but also what keeps them permanently separate.

Production companies: Fruit Tree, Rego Park, Extreme Emotions

International sales: CAA, filmsales@caa.com / WME, Abraham Bengio [email protected] 

Producers: Dave McCary, Ali Herting, Emma Stone, Jennifer Semler, Ewa Puszczynska

Cinematography: Michal Dymek

Production design: Mela Melak

Editing: Robert Nassau

Main cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin, Will Sharpe, Jennifer Grey, Kurt Egyiawan, Liza Sadovy, Daniel Oreskes

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