If you go back and read the Punch Drunk Critics review for Jesse Eisenberg’s first feature When You Finish Saving The World, there was room for him to improve. Well, he found it in A Real Pain, his second directing effort and the first one he is starring in. While Eisenberg’s script stands out as a heartbreaking and hilarious ride through generational trauma, it’s his costar, Kieran Culkin, who steals the show in a moving and manic performance.
A Real Pain starts at the airport, where the listless Benji is waiting for his cousin, the direct opposite and by-the-book David, to board a plane to Poland to visit their recently deceased grandmother’s homeland. Together, they will join a tour group led by non-Jewish historian James (Will Sharpe) and attended by divorcee Marcia (Jennifer Grey), married couple Diane (Liza Sadovy) and Mark (Daniel Oreskes), and convert Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan).
Our introduction to the Eisenberg character is as you’d expect from the well-known actor. Though Benji won’t pick up the phone, David leaves multiple messages thinking his cousin will be late. It shows his anxiety and history with his cousin. Sure, the scene shows off more of Eisenberg’s writing ability than his acting range, but the sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film.
As the group travels around Poland, Benji makes himself the center of attention. He bonds with Marcia, helping her find solace in her divorce. He helps everyone loosen up by taking a silly picture. While David thinks it’s in bad taste, everyone else soon joins in. Not all of his interactions with the group are positive. He constantly interrupts and isn’t afraid to confront someone without thinking about how his words come off, like telling James that parts of his delivery don’t come off as culturally appropriate.
Culkin can communicate a severe melancholy within Benji that is somehow endearing. We’ve seen flashes of this in his Emmy Award-winning work as Roman Roy in Succession, Benji feels a bit like a spiritual twin to his titular character from Igby Goes Down, especially if the latter never emotionally grew up. A Real Pain is a perfect title because it aptly would describe traveling with this character, but it also would describe the deep unrest he is feeling in his life.
While the film feels like it should be a two-hander between its leads with the occasional volley to Will Sharpe, Culkin takes the ball and runs with it. Though the two, get their confrontation and eventual emotional release, Culkin steals the film. Eisenberg lets him, knowing what a brilliant gem of a performance he’s been given.
A Real Pain will be released by Searchlight later this year.