Kieran Culkin delivers a performance that is both heart-wrenching and uproariously funny in Jesse Eisenberg’s “A Real Pain.”

The two actors portray odd-couple cousins who embark on a journey to Poland to pay tribute to their Holocaust survivor grandmother.

It’s been just a week since Kieran Culkin clinched an Emmy for his portrayal of Roman Roy in the final season of Succession, and now, he’s storming the Sundance Film Festival with a captivating performance that rivals even that.

In A Real Pain, Culkin stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg in Eisenberg’s poignant dramedy about Jewish cousins embarking on a Holocaust memorial tour in Poland. Eisenberg takes on the roles of writer, director, and protagonist, playing the uptight New Yorker David Kaplan, but it’s Culkin who steals the spotlight as David’s vivacious cousin Benji. Despite having grown up virtually as siblings, born just weeks apart, adulthood has driven a wedge between them, accentuating their disparities. David is neurotic, dutiful, and reserved, while Benji exudes the energy of a human whirlwind, a charming, rapid-fire conversationalist who oscillates between profound kindness and selfish recklessness. Together, they form an unforgettable comedic duo, with both actors showcasing their prowess in both comedy and drama.

 

Eisenberg boasts experience in writing and directing across multiple platforms, including the stage, and “A Real Pain” marks his second foray into filmmaking following 2022’s “When You Finish Saving the World.” His thoughtful screenplay meticulously traces Benji and David’s journey from start to finish, chronicling the unlikely duo as they embark on a pilgrimage to honor their late grandmother, a survivor of internment in a concentration camp in Poland. Guided by a knowledgeable British historian (portrayed by Will Sharpe), they join a diverse group of fellow pilgrims, each seeking to deepen their understanding and reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Among the group are a recent divorcee (Jennifer Grey), a retired couple (Liza Sadovy and Daniel Oreskes), and a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who has embraced Judaism (Kurt Egyiawan). Together, this motley crew traverses Warsaw and Lublin, endeavoring to immerse themselves in the country’s rich history and culture.

Benji inadvertently takes charge of the group with his magnetic charisma, forging connections with his fellow tourmates and convincing them to partake in whimsical antics, such as striking absurd poses in front of memorial statues. Culkin infuses the character with an unbridled and frenetic energy, and alongside Eisenberg, the duo radiates comedic chemistry, engaging in the kind of playful bickering that only relatives can share. However, beneath Benji’s bravado lies a sense of aimlessness, causing David to grow concerned that his outgoing cousin may be grappling with deeper struggles than he lets on.

At the core of Benji and David’s journey lies the central question of how to confront emotional pain — whether it’s the everyday struggles, existential angst, or the weight of ancestral trauma. Even before their trip commences, both Benji and David are grappling with their own forms of suffering, reeling from the loss of their grandmother and uncertain about their respective paths in life. David, the introverted one, internalizes his anxieties, keeping them tightly guarded. “I feel that my pain is unexceptional,” he confesses at one point, “so I don’t feel the need to burden everybody with it.” In contrast, Benji is so overflowing with emotions that he can’t help but lash out, akin to an overstimulated child, sniping at David and criticizing their guide for not providing a tour that feels “real” enough.

In less skillful hands, “A Real Pain” could have easily felt disjointed, especially when juxtaposing scenes of David and Benji smoking weed on a rooftop with their visit to the Majdanek concentration camp. Exploring the legacy of the Holocaust doesn’t naturally lend itself to comedy, but Eisenberg adeptly navigates the film’s shifting tones, eliciting genuine laughter in some moments while maintaining a solemn reverence in others. Eisenberg and Culkin’s grounded portrayals of David and Benji contribute to this balance, even when the cousins find themselves in absurd situations. (Emma Stone and her husband Dave McCary produced the film, and at a post-screening Q&A, Eisenberg credited Stone for suggesting one of the funniest scenes, where Benji and David accidentally miss their train stop.) The end result is a Holocaust-themed film that manages to be both uproariously funny and profoundly real, anchored by Culkin’s unforgettable performance.

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