‘A Real Pain’ Review: Jesse Eisenberg Becomes a Major Filmmaker — and Kieran Culkin a Movie Star — in a Funny, Knife-Sharp Odyssey

A road movie about two Jewish cousins trekking through Poland, it shows you their reality.


Jesse Eisenberg: A Born Filmmaker

More actors than ever are now stepping behind the camera to take a shot at directing. To me, they always end up falling into one of three categories. There are the ones who simply aren’t very good at it. There are the ones who wind up making a movie that’s A-okay (not better, not worse), often because they’re more attuned to the nuances of guiding their fellow actors than they are to the grander artistic machinery of filmmaking. And then there’s the elite third category: those rare actors — Greta Gerwig, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper — who turn out to be born filmmakers.

To that hallowed company we can now add the name Jesse Eisenberg. “A Real Pain,” which he wrote, directed, and co-stars in, premiered yesterday at Sundance, and it’s a delight and a revelation — a deft, funny, heady, beautifully staged ramble of a road movie about two Jewish cousins, David and Benji Kaplan (played by Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin), who are taking what someone calls a group “Holocaust tour” of Poland. The tour traces the odyssey of Jews over the last century or so, centering on the historic cataclysm of World War II. David and Benji also plan to seek out the home that their grandmother, who died just a few months before (she was a Holocaust survivor), grew up in.

The Complex Cousin Dynamic

That can happen, even with relatives you cherish, though in the case of these two youthful 40ish men, it’s a temperament thing. David is a sweet but conventional middle-class drone, whereas Benji is a loose cannon — a bro who never grew up, the kind of dude who says “fuck” every fifth word, who advance-mails a parcel of weed to his hotel in Poland, and who has no filter when it comes to his thoughts and feelings. He’ll blare it all right out there. Since he’s a brilliant and funny guy who sees more than a lot of other people do, and processes it about 10 times as fast, he can (sort of) get away with the running monologue of hair-trigger nihilist superiority that’s his form of interaction.

The two are thrown in with the half a dozen other members of the tour group, all of whom are middle aged or older and quite serious about what they’re doing. This makes Benji the antic bomb-thrower and wild card, which is his comfort zone. He jokes and jabbers and interrupts and says inappropriate bro-y things. Yet he’s charismatic. People are drawn to the wit of his self-centered energy. (That’s why he’s spent his life getting away with it.) The film presents Benji as a version of the Magical Pest character — the one played by Bill Murray in “What About Bob?,” Owen Wilson in “You, Me and Dupree,” and Adam Sandler in “That’s My Boy,” the hellacious man-child the world should shun, only he turns out to be the life of the party.

Balancing Comedy and Gravitas

The film’s title, of course, is a pun. Culkin’s Benji is obnoxious enough to be “a real pain,” but the movie is also about what it takes, in a world conspiring to insulate us from reality and history, for people to experience real pain. Eisenberg unfolds the story with an organic flow, and he has a gift for interweaving airy comedy and gravitas — the unbearable lightness of good screenwriting — that’s reminiscent of what Richard Linklater brought off in the “Before” films.

At first, Benji seems irreverent about history itself. Journeying out from their hotel in Warsaw, the group stops at a WWII memorial for Polish soldiers (who loom, in sculpted metal, 15 feet tall), and all Benji wants to do is pose next to the sculpture and have his photo snapped; David thinks that’s disrespectful, but everyone in the group soon poses along with him.