A Real Pain (2024)

A Real Pain Review

A Real Pain

A film about two cousins’ journey across Poland on a road trip is now showing us their truth.

More actors than ever are switching sides to take up directing; and to me, they always fall into one of three categories. There are those who just aren’t good at it. There are those who make an okay film (not better, not worse), usually because they’re more in tune with the subtleties of guiding their fellow actors rather than the bigger artistic mechanisms of filmmaking. And then there’s the top third category: those rare actors Greta Gerwig, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper who turn out to be born filmmakers.

To this illustrious group we can add Jesse Eisenberg’s name now: he wrote, directed and co-stars in “A Real Pain,” which premiered yesterday at Sundance, and it’s fantastic and revelatory a light-footed, humorous, intellectual, beautifully staged shaggy-dog Jewish road movie about two cousins traveling through Poland (David and Benji Kaplan; Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin) on what someone calls a “Holocaust tour” of the country that also happened to be home to their recently deceased grandmother (a Holocaust survivor). The tour essentially follows Jews around over the last 100 years or so with World War II as its historical cataclysmic centerpiece.

“A Real Pain” is about many things but especially blustery talk; one of those things being Jewish history’s suffering how past speaks to present. David is played by Eisenberg in a baseball cap as a typical Jesse character earnestly anxious represented by his quick-talking mannerisms but not getting close enough Woody Allen territory for that description to become accurate yet emotionally stoic millennial caricature either–he must have been doing alright for himself considering he lives New York City where he has wife cute little kid works job selling online advertising space banners which brings home decent amount money each month meets all their needs financially so no complaints there could be worse things right? Anyway, it was David’s idea to take the week off (which he arranged and paid for) so that he could spend some quality time catching up with his cousin Benji whom they grew up together being very close until recent years when they drifted apart due mostly I think because Benji moved out West..

Even with cherished relatives, this happens albeit being a matter of temperament for these two 40-something men. David is sweet and middle-classed in a conventional way. Unlike him, Benji is a loose cannon a guy who never grew up; the kind of dude who says “fuck” every fifth word, who advance-mails a parcel of weed to his hotel in Poland, whose thoughts and feelings have no filter. He will just blare it all right out there. He can (sort of) get away with the running monologue of hair-trigger nihilist superiority that’s his form of interaction because he’s brilliant and funny and sees more than most people do and processes it about 10 times as fast. But he’s also very nice, and knows how to play people an anti-social misfit at heart, one who’s clinging to the recklessness of youth just at the moment he should be leaving it behind.

The tour group numbers half a dozen other members besides them but they’re all middle aged or older serious people serious about what they’re doing which makes Benji the antic bomb-thrower wild card wonderboy that is his comfort zone. He jokes and jabbers and interrupts and says inappropriate bro-y things. But charismatic though: People are drawn to the wit of his self-centered energy (that’s why he’s spent his life getting away with it). The film presents Benji as a version of what I’ll call the Magical Pest character the Bill Murray in What About Bob?, Owen Wilson in You, Me and Dupree, Adam Sandler in That’s My Boy character you know should be shunned by everyone within earshot but turns out to be the life of the party.

It is not Culkin giving a “comedy” performance here even though he has crack timing. It is a sensational piece of acting by him as a compulsive wiseacre addicted to one-upmanship. Benji has the personality of a hipster slacker crossed with that of a corporate dick. He’s funny, he’s rude, he’s charming, he’s manipulative, and he will suck the life out of you yet Culkin makes him real, and Eisenberg’s script (which has an ear for the music of ideas and for contrasting voices) tells the story of these two cousins: How they interact, what they mean to each other, how their past intersects with the present in a way so supple you can touch their reality. This, people, is what fucking filmmaking is about as Benji might put it.

At first it seems like irreverence about history itself. Journeying out from their hotel in Warsaw one morning (an establishing shot suggests that David and Benji are staying at a dinky Best Western), the group stops at a WWII memorial for Polish soldiers (who loom, in sculpted metal, 15 feet tall), and all Benji wants to do is pose next to them and have his photo snapped; David thinks that’s disrespectful (“It just feels like there should be some kind of reverence”), but everyone in the group soon poses along with him.

The text becomes darker when it gets on a Polish country silver train. All of them bought tickets for first-class, but Benji starts talking about how offensive this is with regard to what trains symbolized for Jews during the Holocaust. He can be a sort of left-wing scold, but what he’s saying here could almost be a page out of Milan Kundera. He’s moralistic, but he’s also right and fast-talking action starts turning into a meditation on our relationship with the past. At Poland’s oldest gravestone site, Benji chews out the tour guide (Will Sharpe, from “White Lotus”), a British chap who is not Jewish, for pelting them all with too many facts. He’s right about that one too.

Of course the film is titled as a pun; Culkin’s Benji is obnoxious enough to be “a real pain,” but the movie is also about what it takes in a world that conspires to insulate us from reality and history for people to truly feel pain. Eisenberg tells the story with an organic flow and has a gift for interweaving light comedy and gravitas the unbearable lightness of good screenwriting that recalls what Richard Linklater pulled off in the “Before” films. “A Real Pain” is an easy watch; it’s a buddy movie rooted in the existential joy of verbal sparring. But then it sneaks up on you with an emotional kick.

The other actors all make their marks: Jennifer Grey as a perky but maudlin newly divorced Los Angeles “lady who lunches”; Daniel Oreskes and Liza Sadovy as a stolid bourgeois couple, Kurt Egyiawan as a Rwandan genocide survivor who converted to Judaism. By the time they travel to Majdanek concentration camp, the film opens itself up to sorrow and pity.

Benji may be the most arrested person on hand, but he’s also the most thoughtful. The complex way the movie sees him is that his awareness gives him soul, even if he can’t apply it to his own life. He’s brilliant but lost, unlike David, who has found himself. I didn’t see Eisenberg’s first feature as a director, “When You Finish Saving the World” (which played Sundance in 2022), but I can attest, or at least predict, that he’s going to have a major career behind the camera. As for Kieran Culkin, his performance in “A Real Pain” feels karmically timed to the end of “Succession.”

He just won an Emmy, but he started out in movies playing the hero of the great “Igby Goes Down” when he was 19, and “A Real Pain” shows that his fast-break insolence can play onscreen at full throttle. The film ends on a shot that’s a beauty because it reflects with haunting ambiguity the entire question raised by Culkin’s Benji: Can he change and redeem himself? That’s stardom.

Watch A Real Pain For Free On Gomovies.

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