‘A Real Pain’ Review — Kieran Culkin Is a Real Star

‘A Real Pain’ Review — Kieran Culkin Is a Real Star

Movies


The Big Picture

  • A Real Pain is a pitch-perfect dramedy exploring grief and family on a Holocaust memorial tour.
  • Kieran Culkin gives a powerhouse performance as Benji, who is full of contradictions.
  • Jesse Eisenberg proves to be a triple threat, having written, directed, and acted in the film.


The idea of having excessive burping and weed in a movie that takes place on a Holocaust tour might sound risky or even impossible to execute respectfully, but somehow, director Jesse Eisenberg not only gets away with it but creates something of a masterpiece with A Real Pain. The film brings the laughs, that’s for sure, but it brings the tears as well, with heartbreaking moments driven by its compelling characters as they connect with their devastating history and each other.

A Real Pain

Two cousins travel to Poland after their grandmother’s death to see where they came from and end up joining a Holocaust tour.

Release Date
January 20, 2024

Runtime
90 minutes


What is ‘A Real Pain’ About?

A Real Pain hinges on the relationship between two cousins — uptight workaholic David (Eisenberg) and magnetic, free-spirited Benji (Kieran Culkin) — as they go on a heritage tour in Poland to mourn their recently deceased Grandma Dory, who survived the Holocaust by “a thousand little miracles.”

A Real Pain’s cleverness starts with its double-meaning title. Benji can be a real pain in the ass to David, with his unpredictable and chaotic nature constantly clashing with David’s desire for order and peace. On a deeper level, however, the title hints at the real core of the film, which is how we deal with grief. David and Benji have vastly different ideas of what’s appropriate. David feels the need to bottle it up so as not to make anyone uncomfortable, whereas Benji is unafraid of being loud with his sadness and anger alike. Is one expression more acceptable? Is one more “real?” David and Benji, as well as the rest of their tour group, must grapple with this throughout its tight 90-minute runtime.

‘A Real Pain’ Uses Humor to Talk About Hell

A Real Pain is a pitch-perfect dramedy. During the premiere screening, several moments drew laughter so loud that it was hard to hear the dialogue directly after the joke. Yet the somber moments — such as the harrowing scene that sees the group tour a concentration camp — are completely silent, with shifting in movie theater seats or even breathing too loudly feeling rude to the solemn vibe.

Toward the beginning of the trip, tour guide James (an excellent Will Sharpe) states that it’s going to be about pain, yes, but it’s also going to be a celebration of the resilience of people. That’s a pretty accurate summary of the film, too. The moments of levity — taking silly photographs with a war statue and dodging a train conductor — only make the haunting moments hit harder, the juxtaposition making the message not just more palatable but more powerful as well.

Benji is often comedic relief, but he also raises genuinely tough and valid questions about how we process the past and live our lives when we’ve inherited trauma from generations past. What are the ethics of going on a cushy tour in a place where so many innocent people were murdered? Is it disrespectful to look at it from a more factual lens rather than a purely emotional one? Is it out of touch to visit a place and hardly interact with any of the locals, getting information from an outsider rather than the sources themselves? It certainly made me interrogate my own opinions on these things, sparking new and necessary conversations.

‘A Real Pain’ Further Proves Culkin is a Star

I’m not convinced this movie would work without Culkin. He’s already proven his unbelievable acting chops, recently winning an Emmy for his performance as Roman Roy in Succession, and this only provides more evidence that he’s the real deal. There are shades of Roman throughout — they’re both irreverent and tend to be crass, with their charisma masking deeper issues of aimlessness and depression — but it’s far from the same role. Benji is singular and complex, playing to Culkin’s many strengths while allowing him to branch out and further showcase his range. He’s the kind of guy who can make friends with everyone (even notoriously grumpy TSA agents!), floating through life doing whatever he pleases. In lesser hands, Benji’s many quirks could feel like too much or out of place, but Culkin sells every airport-loving, rooftop-smoking, pocket yogurt-storing part. “You light up a room,” David tells him at one point, “and then you shit on everything inside it.” Benji is full of contradictions — deliriously confident yet deeply insecure, selfish yet sensitive, the life and death of the party — and every facet feels authentic. Somehow, Culkin makes the tightrope act look easy.

Eisenberg’s performance is quieter and more restrained but equally necessary for the film’s success. He’s very much the straight man in the situation, the reluctant sidekick for Benji’s antics, but it’s not hard to empathize with him for a myriad of reasons. Benji is such a bright light that David is stuck living in his shadow, and Benji’s past crises constantly have him on guard. He feels relegated to babysitting duty, making sure Benji stays safe and out of trouble, navigating a minefield so as not to set him off by saying the “wrong thing.” David’s a quieter character, as Benji naturally dominates the conversation. But when he gets a moment alone with the tour group, he finds his voice and opens up, giving a cathartic monologue about his frustrations that ends up being one of the highlights of the film. The line between love and hate is thin, and Eisenberg effortlessly toggles it in David’s relationship with his exasperating, exhausting, fragile, and magnetic cousin.

The supporting cast is just as strong and fleshed out. Standouts in their tour group include Marcia (Jennifer Grey), who’s fresh off a nasty divorce, and Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan), who converted to Judaism after escaping a genocide in his home country. They each enrich the film with their own stories and perspectives, and their dynamics with Benji and David give us even more insight into the two.

If I had to nitpick one thing, it’s that I would have loved to have gotten a better sense of what their extended family is like outside of Grandma Dory and how that informs their relationship. But perhaps that’s just me being selfish and wanting to spend more time with David and Benji. I’d watch them travel all over the world or even just hang out in their living room (or the airport, if Benji would prefer).

Eisenberg knocks it out of the park and proves he is a triple threat to be reckoned with, with solid writing, confident directing, and stellar acting — even if, at the end of the day, the film really does belong to Culkin. The film manages to be a meditation on grief with more laugh-out-loud moments than most straightforward comedies. It also makes the audience think more deeply about the Holocaust than some documentaries out there about the topic. Many complex questions are raised throughout the movie, but one thing is simple and clear: A Real Pain is a real gem.

A Real Pain Sundance Film Festival 2024 Image

A Real Pain

REVIEW

A Real Pain is a pitch-perfect dramedy, with incredible depth and humor alike

Two cousins travel to Poland after their grandmother’s death to see where they came from and end up joining a Holocaust tour.

Pros

  • The film features a powerhouse performance from Kieran Culkin.
  • It has an excellent blend of comedy and drama.
  • The story thought-provoking questions about trauma and grief.
Cons

  • There isn’t as much family background on the central cousins as one would hope.

A Real Pain had its World Premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.



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