With his debut feature “When You Finish Saving The World,” Jesse Eisenberg proved surprisingly deft in his handling of interpersonal drama between family members at odds. His follow-up, “A Real Pain,” sees him wearing multiple hats, as he directs himself in the role of the socially anxious but professionally put-together David Kaplan. On its surface, it’s hardly a departure from Eisenberg’s other roles. But through David’s relationship with his moody and energetic cousin Benjamin, or “Benji” (Kieran Culkin), the actor-writer-director unfurls a number of intricate personal and social dynamics that turn the lens not only on the deep insecurity underlying the average Eisenberg character, but Eisenberg’s own piercing guilt as an American Jew with European roots — who comes from a place of unimaginable trauma, but frets over the small things.
Make no mistake: Culkin is the movie’s heart and soul as the eccentric, unpredictable wanderer Benji, but “A Real Pain” is — at the risk of it being too early in the filmmaker’s career to coin this term — Eisenbergian through and through. While it doesn’t have the same careful aesthetic control as its predecessor, his sophomore effort brims with the kind of complications that American indie filmmakers often try to wrap up in neat bows in their tales of family gatherings. Instead, Eisenberg lets emotional paradoxes take control, as the New York cousin duo joins an intimate Holocaust tour in Poland to grow closer to their roots after their grandmother’s passing.
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When we first meet David and Benji at the airport, they strangely defy their expected types. David, though anxious and over-prepared with his printed itineraries and numerous voicemails to Benji, is late. Meanwhile Benji, who plans to get weed over the Polish border and would rather go-with-the-flow instead of planning for their trip, is perfectly on time, and has even come prepared with snacks for David. While it would be so much easier to neatly categorize their traits and divide them into two extremes — one uptight, nebbish, prim-and-proper cousin, and another who slacks off — Eisenberg’s dramatic interest lies anywhere but in neat binaries.
Benji is great at reading people and he brings a palpable energy into the room, though he’s just as good at sucking it back out with his opinionated outburst (exacerbated, it would seem, by the death of their grandmother). Meanwhile David, though he tries to calm Benji and look after him, finds himself wondering why he doesn’t stand out the same way. The cousins — born three weeks apart, and raised practically as brothers — share a palpably warm dynamic despite these differences and little clashes, but the more they explore Holocaust history, the more difficult their journey becomes.
Their tour group is small but entirely Jewish, between kindly older couple Mark (Daniel Orekses and Diane (Liza Sadovy), middle-aged Brooklyn divorcee Marica (Jennifer Grey) and Rwandan convert Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan) — based on a friend of Eisenberg’s — and they become a de facto family to Benji and David as they re-trace their lineage. There’s nothing deeply philosophical about their intentions to visit Majdanek concentration camp, near their grandmother’s home of Lublin, but their desire to simply observe where she came from brings lingering family tensions to the surface. The best Benji can do to express himself is to loudly object to the nature of Holocaust tourism, while grasping at straws to point out the irony of their privilege as American interlopers. But no matter what points Benji makes, Culkin’s performance always roots each charged complaint in a much deeper pain and sadness, over the loss of the woman who cared for him perhaps more than any other family member, and who was his connection to this very same history, which they now wander through as though it were a graveyard.
Eisenberg, meanwhile, controls and modulates each of David’s reactions to Benji’s boisterous emotional oscillations, until he can control himself no further, and is similarly forced into breakdowns and confrontations when he refuses to walk on eggshells. There’s a deep love between them, and Benji’s whip-smart retorts in any given situation are a delight to watch, but there’s a profound brokenness too, which alternatingly manifests either moving scenes of reminiscence, or as riotous instances of Benji consuming the frame with animated body language, and flowery insults à la Roman Roy.
The power behind the writing and acting often make up for Eisenberg’s lack of visual flair, though his conversation scenes often feel shackled by rote convention. That said, he not only affords Culkin the room to breathe as an actor (ironically, what they do best as an actor-director duo is make Benji suffocate), but he also switches directorial gears with precision when the film needs a more documentarian bent, while visiting Holocaust sites with a deeply tormented history. The movie is filled to the brim with Benji’s chatter (and with piano pieces from 19th century Polish virtuoso Frédéric Chopin), except when it demands respectful silence.
Eventually, the contrast therein impacts Benji more than anyone else. Like David, he’s in search of some way to reconcile his dueling identities as an American (and as a member of the Jewish diaspora) with a history to which he no longer has access. He’s so desperate to feel the pain his late grandmother once felt that he’s willing to make the tour miserable for everyone else. He sucks! And yet, he’s so lovable in his best, most human, and most vulnerable moments that it’s hard not to forgive him these faults. He’s a lost child, after all, without a roadmap leading him to a neat unpacking of generational trauma, a concept Eisenberg is able to mine not only for its rigorous drama, but its darkly humorous potential too.
“A Real Pain” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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