Pending Woody Allen’s final and absolute cancellation, few directors have emerged to take his place as an erudite and literary artist whose work combines snappy wordplay, base sex jokes and a philosophical willingness to stare into the abyss. Jesse Eisenberg staked a tentative claim to that throne with his 2022 debut When You Finish Saving the World, an amiable but scrappy political satire about a left-wing mother and son, but his follow-up makes a stronger case, being much more adult, less broadly scripted, and as depressing as Woody Allen circa Stardust Memories (which his sophomore film as director obliquely resembles, with its talk of chance, fate and irony).
Key to its success is a career-high performance from Succession star Kieran Culkin, whose enigmatic presence bookends the movie. In either case, he is sitting motionless at JFK airport, watching the world go by. He plays Benji, and he is waiting for his cousin David (Eisenberg) to join him on a tourist trip through Poland. The pair’s beloved grandmother Dory has recently passed, and so to pay tribute to the old lady they are using their inheritance to visit her homeland, aiming to wind up at the house she had to leave behind after the Nazis swept through in 1939 and rounded up the Jews.
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The two cousins could not be more different; David is shrewd and practical but uncomfortable in his own skin (as Benji puts it, “An awesome guy trapped in the body of someone who’s always running late”). Benji, on the other hand, is effortlessly charming and laid back to the point of recklessness, mailing a shipment of drugs to their hotel in Warsaw in the belief that “they’re not going to arrest two Jews in Poland for a little bit of weed.” He seems carefree enough, an image that will be sustained for at least an hour.
The next day they join a tour party led by James (Will Sharpe), a haplessly nerdy British history graduate, and comprising three Americans (a couple and a divorcee) plus a refugee from Rwanda who converted to Judaism after finding safe haven in America. All are looking for some kind epiphany, or at least a way to fill in some of the blanks of their existence. Benji immediately shatters the pensive mood, having an indecent amount of fun at a war memorial, which he turns into a living tableau of resistance. A subsequent trip to Lublin and the historic Grodzka Gate, however, shows a different, much darker side to Benji. Appalled to find that they will be traveling first class, he insists on sitting at the back of the train, as his ancestors would have had to under the Nazi regime.
This being a heritage tour, James immediately flags up a potentially upsetting visit to a concentration camp, and the specter of the Holocaust looms large until they get there. Ever the intellectual, David posits a parallel reality in which it didn’t happen, a world in which he would be Polish (“There but for the Grace of no God go I,” he quips). Benji, meanwhile, takes a much more emotional approach, begging the touring party to feel the history in the places they visit, not just boil it all down to a list of dates and stats.
The concentration camp visit is, of course, is the chilling centerpiece of the movie, contextualizing the turbulent emotions raised by the film’s (not entirely unexpected) reveal after David explains the truth behind his Benji’s behavior on this journey. Wisely, Eisenberg errs on the side of caution here, joining the likes of Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest and Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz in letting the architecture do the talking, while the cast, likewise, handle the sudden shift in tone with respect and sensitivity.
Surprisingly, given the subject matter, A Real Pain was the first title to rack up a big sale at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, selling to Searchlight in a eight-figure deal. For audiences, the draw will likely be Culkin, clearly ready for new challenges after a five-year tenure as the snarky Roman Roy. For the industry, however, the film is proof that Eisenberg has ready to transcend the label of actor-director: Benji is a gift of a role, the kind that makes movie stars, and Eisenberg generously hands it to Culkin on a plate.
Title: A Real Pain
Festival (Section): Sundance (US Dramatic)
Director-screenwriter: Jesse Eisenberg
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin, Will Sharpe, Jennifer Gray, Kurt Egyiawan
Running time: 1 hr 29 min
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