Two men stand next to each other, looking up at the sky.

Sundance Film Review: A Real Pain

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: A Real Pain
Director: Jesse Eisenberg

Topic Studios, Fruit Tree, Extreme Emotions
Premiere: 01.20

A Real Pain, the second feature directed by Jesse Eisenberg (When You Finish Saving the World), is about two Jewish cousins on a holocaust heritage tour through Poland. If that doesn’t sound like a movie that will shatter your bones with laughs, you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that it’s a sharp, thoughtful comedy that’s more interested in dissecting its characters’ pain than extensively languishing in it. 

Kieran Culkin (Succession) plays Benji. Benji’s the sloppy fun cousin—you can tell by his messy hair and his daytime pajama pants. Eisenberg is David, the neurotic strait-laced cousin—this is made obvious by his glasses and his seething, cosmic compulsion for order. The opening scenes smartly set them up as these types so that their traits can become deepened, messed with and rearranged from what you’d expect. I generally find both of these actors to be endearing in the ways they embrace their weird prickliness, and that endearment goes a long way toward keeping an audience on board as their characters swing between different persuasions of overbearing. They begin as archetypes, they become complicated archetypes, and by the end, well, they’re people. 

Culkin tears up the screen like a lawnmower through a back porch door. His performance is soaked in the playfully demonic energy that made him such a breakout on Succession, but he also displays moments of true vulnerability and a brand of righteous fury that feels new from him. Eisenberg’s hassled straight-man performance feels generous and in some ways selfless, often ceding the stage for Culkin to work his goblin magic, but his character is also a little heartbreaking in the silent ways he conveys that he’s working out why he can’t replicate his cousin’s magnetic presence.

It’s rare to see a comedy deal with an issue as heavy as the holocaust in ways that aren’t outright farce, and A Real Pain treads that line beautifully. It’s funny, yes, but it’s very lovingly considered in its depiction of characters going through pain in different levels and measures. Benji and David are piecing together a culture and lineage that was severed from them generations ago, and that it feels unsentimental and truthful is no small task for a film of this type. What a blessing that it ends up as something more complex and interesting than a “hey pal, let’s meet in the middle,” buddy-travel comedy. Next time Jesse Eisenberg has the idea to invent Facebook, he should make another movie like this instead. –Daniel Kirkham

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.