A Real Pain review: "Kieran Culkin proves why he was Succession’s MVP in Jesse Eisenberg’s latest"

 A Real Pain.
A Real Pain.

A Real Pain premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Here’s our review… 

"Two Jewish cousins walk into a concentration camp…" It might sound like the setup for a bad bar joke, but in fact it’s the greatly abridged premise of Jesse Eisenberg’s latest film as director, writer and co-star in which… well, see above.

To expand, Eisenberg plays David Kaplan, a (would you believe it?) neurotic New Yorker about to embark on a guided tour of Poland with his once-close cousin Benji, played by Succession’s Kieran Culkin. Their beloved grandmother Dory, a Holocaust survivor, has recently died and left them the money to visit their ancestral homeland, a journey that stirs up difficult feelings for raw nerve Benji in particular.

For David, a father and successful ads man, the tour is primarily a way to reconnect with his brother from another mother, while solemnly and somewhat passively engaging with his family’s painful history. Benji, on the other hand, feels everything. He’s the center of attention in any room, the kind of person who can’t help but say the quiet thing out loud, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for those around him.

This leads to some excruciating fist-in-mouth moments, notably when Benji confronts their delightfully British but motormouthed tour guide James (Will Sharpe) in a graveyard over his empirical treatment of 'real' people. Benji is the gravitational force at the center of the film and is clearly suffering; the reason behind his erratic behavior is treated as a somewhat easy-to-piece-together mystery, until the truth comes out at an inevitably awkward dinner.

Benji is a compelling, can’t-take-your-eyes-off creation. He’s also evidently the character Eisenberg is truly enamored with, given how ostensible main character David recedes into the background for stretches at a time. But there’s no escaping the fact it can feel a little like watching 'Roman Roy Abroad' to a distracting degree, the characters sharing the exact same combination of emotional sensitivity, barely repressed trauma and unfiltered frankness. For audiences craving more Succession following the show’s recent conclusion, this may be no bad thing, of course.

As writer/director, Eisenberg does assured work here, filming on location in Poland, including at the Majdanek/Lublin concentration camp. There is a sincere attempt to reckon with the pain of Poland’s Jewish history that somehow sits comfortably alongside scenes of David and Benji getting high on hotel rooftops and giddily dodging train conductors – no easy feat. And while the film occasionally pushes you to feel as deeply as Benji, something it can’t quite pull off, there is a profundity to David and Benji’s pilgrimage that leaves an unmistakable impression.

A Real Pain's release date is currently TBC.

For more, check out all of the upcoming movies arriving in 2024 and beyond.