PARK CITY, Utah—A Real Pain’s title refers to Benji (Kieran Culkin) in three intertwined ways: he’s in genuine distress; he’s desperate to feel something pure and authentic, even if it hurts; and, when the mood strikes him, he can be a legitimate asshole. In short, he’s a multifaceted man going through an ongoing emotional and psychological crisis, and he’s the vehicle for the finest performance of Culkin’s career. Fresh off his Best Actor win at the Emmys for Succession, A Real Pain proves that he’s far more than simply Roman Roy.
Culkin is the undisputed star of A Real Pain, but his alternately funny and off-putting turn wouldn’t work without the presence of his writer/director Jesse Eisenberg, who co-stars as David, Benji’s workaholic cousin who’s agreed to accompany his relative on a tour of Poland and, specifically, the concentration camp which their grandmother survived and the home and neighborhood she left behind (and bequeathed them money to see). Together, they make for a winning pair, balancing each other in a variety of ways that speak to the material’s larger concerns about loss, grief, remembrance and regret—all of which the film (which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) handles with nuanced, compassionate prickliness and pathos.
Operating in a serio-comic vein that fits Eisenberg perfectly, A Real Pain first locates Benji at a New York City airport where, amidst throngs of travelers, he sits silently and sadly, staring at the men and women who pass by with a distant look of longing and sorrow, if not quiet desperation, in his eyes. Eisenberg’s bookending shots convey the fact that Benji is in transit and adrift, caught in some unsteady space between his yesterday and tomorrow. Still, he shows none of that to David, who arrives at the terminal (after numerous anxious travel-update phone calls) and is surprised to discover that his cousin is already there, raring to go. Benji is an upbeat bundle of energy, although his positivity almost immediately resounds as the sort that people exhibit when—following bouts of severe depression—they’ve finally chosen to end their lives.
David senses that something is amiss with Benji. Nonetheless, he soldiers onward, happy to be in the company of his cousin—who can barely keep from looking on the bright side and chatting up strangers such as a TSA agent—following what appears to have been significant time apart. The nature of their current relationship is only gradually revealed by A Real Pain, which moves swiftly alongside the duo as they make their way to Poland, where they join a tour that’s led by British guide James (Will Sharpe) and includes a newly divorced mother (Jennifer Grey), an older couple (Daniel Oreskes and Liza Sadovy), and a survivor of the Rwandan genocide (Kurt Egyiawan) who converted to Judaism after being welcomed into a Jewish community with open arms.
Whereas David is a nebbish and OCD-afflicted digital ad salesman who’s more comfortable in the background, Benji is a gregarious and unfiltered ball of charisma, and while he makes an initially good impression with the group, he simultaneously undermines it by blurting out insensitive remarks for which he then must apologize.
Everyone has signed up for this tour in order to better understand their ancestors, as well as to consider (and grapple with) their own status as the fortunate offspring of survivors. For Benji, coping with the Holocaust and its impact on his family is complicated by his present suffering, part of which has to do with his aimless, underachieving life, but most which is rooted in the recent passing of his beloved grandmother, who was the ostensible role model for his tell-it-like-it-is attitude. Benji’s main method of dealing with all of this is weed (which, hilariously, he has shipped to his Warsaw hotel, damn the potential consequences) and by occasionally lashing out, whether it’s by making nasty digs at David about his job and disinterest in staying in touch, or by chastising the group for gladly riding in a train’s luxurious first-class accommodations when their forefathers were shipped to concentration camps in the rear cars.
Benji is clumsily figuring out how to exist in the aftermath of historic and raw traumas, and Culkin brings him to life with a megawatt selflessness that often feels not too different from selfishness. One second gracious and compassionate, the next self-righteous and offensive, he’s a mess, and A Real Pain charts his struggle to settle his warring impulses—and to soothe his soul—alongside David, whose polar-opposite means of managing heartache creates amusing and hostile friction. Be it congratulating David on his beautiful feet or scheming to avoid ticket-takers on a train ride (this after causing them to miss their original stop because he was too busy watching his cousin sleep), Benji is a fundamentally good man flailing about in a vain attempt to keep himself from drowning. Subsequent revelations only italicize that he’s undergoing the difficult process of accepting that he’s alive when those he cares for most are gone.
Tight and dense, Eisenberg’s script marries its protagonists’ confusion and melancholy with mirth, as when Benji makes David meet him in their hotel bathroom so he can thank him for taking time out of his hectic schedule for their odyssey, or when he persuades everyone on the tour to pose ridiculously with a WWII memorial statue of Russian and Polish soldiers (leaving David to snap photos with everyone’s iPhone). A Real Pain is witty without reducing either cousin to a caricature, and that strengthens the impact of its conclusion, when the tour finally arrives at Majdanek concentration camp (a short two-mile drive from the center of neighboring city Lublin) and the weight of terrible history lands on everyone with such impact that there’s no response except silence, tears ,and vacant stares.
Exhibiting a complex understanding of the modern Jewish experience in a manner that recalls the Eisenberg-headlined FX limited series Fleishman Is in Trouble (albeit with a different nominal focus), A Real Pain is a charming character study that doubles as a sharp, anguished portrait of the burdens of the past, and the arduousness of trying to shoulder them.