THE STORY – Two cousins travel to Poland after their grandmother’s death to see where they came from and end up joining a Holocaust tour.
THE CAST – Kieran Culkin, Jesse Eisenberg, Will Sharpe & Jennifer Grey
THE TEAM – Jesse Eisenberg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
Actor Jesse Eisenberg may best be known for his on-camera work in films like “The Social Network” and “Zombieland,” but he hit the snowy Sundance Film Festival as a first-time director in 2022 with “When You Finish Saving The World.” Despite mixed reviews, the Academy Award-nominee proved he was capable of stepping into the director’s chair and honing his off-screen craft. Two years later, he’s back with “A Real Pain” as writer, director, and star. Eisenberg takes a more emotional approach with this film, as he follows two cousins who go on a trip together to honor their late grandmother and find some understanding with each other. The result is a tumultuous trip full of laughs, drama, and wonderful performances from Eisenberg and his recent Emmy-winning co-star Kieran Culkin (“Succession“).
Cousins David (Eisenberg) and Benji (Culkin) are ready to embark on a trip of a lifetime, although it’ll likely come with strains along the way. While David is severely Type A, with a whole itinerary planned for their weeklong stay, Benji is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who likely hasn’t looked up any of the places they’ll be visiting during their trip. There’s also a weird tension in the air between them. David wants to discuss something but isn’t sure how to address it because it’s also something Benji doesn’t want to get into. That is revealed later in the film. In Poland, they join a tourist group with tour guide James (Will Sharpe) and others who similarly explore their family’s roots or religion. The group consists of Marcia (Jennifer Grey), an older couple (Liza Sadovy and Daniel Oreskes), and Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan), a Rwandan man who fled genocide and later converted to Judaism. These cousins quickly stand out among the rest, particularly when Benji starts acting erratic or inappropriate, and David looks beyond uncomfortable. At a soldier monument, Benji recruits the others to pose as the statues and take photos while David stays back, nervous that his cousin’s behavior is insensitive. Later on, when they visit a cemetery, Benji explodes, telling James that his tour is too focused on stats and not giving them a genuine look at the country, and David is mortified.
That clash of behavior carries us through the film, and it’s exciting to see the two actors go against each other at every turn. Culkin expresses several different emotions and moods, sometimes in the same scene, and he keeps us on our toes the entire time as we never know what will delight him or set him off (Like when he freaks out over Jews traveling first class in a train when their ancestors were boarded onto them and taken to their slaughter). Eisenberg is much more restrained, letting Culkin shine, but it’s fun to see him try to manage this mishmash of personalities. One hilarious moment is when David falls asleep on the train, and they miss their stop because Benji doesn’t want to wake him up from his peaceful slumber. While David freaks out, Benji is already five steps ahead with a plan on how to get back to their group, which, of course, gets David even more nervous.
While most would sideline supporting actors in a film like this, Eisenberg puts great detail into the other tour group members. We see Benji interacting with all of them, whether he’s annoying or exciting them, and he forms a nice connection with the divorcee, Marcia. Eloge carefully takes in all he sees and hears on the tour and is always willing to be kind, which is needed when tensions rise between the cousins. Even James gets moments to shine, and we see another side to Sharpe’s acting chops following his acclaimed performance in season two of “The White Lotus.”
The real heart of the film is how Eisenberg writes about these cousins rediscovering their grandmother and themselves. As they travel through Warsaw, the historical city of Lublin, and Majdanek Concentration Camp, Eisenberg not only honors each place delicately, but his characters also show a great deal of respect. Silence fills the room as they take in the atrocities that occurred at Majdanek, which brings Benji to tears and makes them both reflect on the horrors their grandmother faced. And while David and Benji clash more often than not during their trip, there’s clearly a deep love between them. Something happened with Benji months earlier that has left David incredibly hurt. When the two cousins finally get a moment to themselves, it’s sweet and tender, precisely what they need for closure following so much heartache.
Sure, this film has conventional beats, but that won’t keep you from enjoying “A Real Pain.” With his second feature, Eisenberg shows great strides in both his directing and writing abilities as he balances lighthearted and emotional moments against intimate and delicate topics and settings. His directorial debut was rocky, but “A Real Pain” is a real delight and a step up for him as a storyteller.