If you stick around for even part of some post-screening festival Q&As with directors, at times you can get the feeling they’re expounding on the film they intended to make rather than the one you’ve just seen. But Jesse Eisenberg is nothing if not hyper-articulate. He describes the essence of his delicate second feature, A Real Pain, as a consideration of “epic pain vs. more modern pain,” and how to reconcile the latter against something as monumental as genocide or historical trauma. What’s surprising is that he achieves this with a deft lightness of touch in a frequently laugh-out-loud funny odd couple road trip movie whose emotional wallop sneaks up and floors you.
Eisenberg’s perceptive script — rooted in his family’s history — shares some thematic territory with the multihyphenate’s second play, The Revisionist, in which he starred off-Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave in 2013. It’s about the conflict of Americans grappling with their own troubles, however minor, while attempting to be mindful of the punishing experience endured by ancestors from traumatized cultures — a Holocaust movie with a fresh perspective.
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Normally, I’m against critics inserting themselves into reviews, but I’m going to blunder ahead and do it anyway. In no way do I wish to infer that my family history is comparable to that of the descendants of World War II survivors. But my devoutly religious Catholic mother, who died in 2020 on the other side of the globe in a country whose borders were closed at the time for purposes of pandemic control, was a classical pianist who loved playing Chopin. That composer’s work is the chief music source in A Real Pain, beautifully played by Israeli-Canadian pianist Tzvi Erez.
In a movie that deals, among other things, with the legacy of pain and loss and suffering, the pieces I grew up hearing as background noise hit me hard. I was never less than fully immersed in the intimate moments and the supple tonal shifts of Eisenberg’s film. But a compartment of my mind was also occupied by thoughts of a woman I had to mourn from a great distance, and of the life she lived — an ordinary existence with its share of difficulties and rewards, though perhaps seldom as fulfilling as she deserved.
It requires emotional acuity and generosity of spirit for a filmmaker to mine painful history while providing subtle access pathways for audiences from entirely different backgrounds to find their way in. Acknowledging the universality of his underlying themes, Eisenberg does that, with soulful maturity.
The writer-director casts himself as New Yorker David, a moderately uptight but successful digital ad salesman with a beautiful wife and adorable young son. Months after the death of his grandmother, who miraculously lived through concentration camp internment, emigrated to the U.S. and rebuilt a formidable life, David funds a trip to her homeland, Poland, for himself and his cousin Benji (Kieran Culkin), who adored her. David and Benji were once close but have drifted apart, not only because Benji moved out of the city.
The dynamic between the polar-opposite cousins is nailed in amusing opening scenes at the airport. David is a nervous type, slightly neurotic and needing to be in control of every situation. Benji is an easygoing extrovert with no filter; he refuses to self-censor even inappropriate comments. Both actors are wonderful, but Culkin is a sheer delight. He couldn’t have chosen a better role with which to show his range following Succession, particularly as the story progresses and we get greater exposure to Benji’s melancholy side.
The cousins’ itinerary begins with a tour group rendezvous in Warsaw and proceeds over the course of a week with time in the picturesque historical city of Lublin, followed by a visit to Majdanek Concentration Camp. David and Benji will branch off for the last two days to go to the house where their grandmother last lived before leaving Poland. (Those scenes are shot outside a home that once belonged to Eisenberg’s relatives.)
The tour is tailored specifically for Jewish Americans, although Brit tour guide James (Will Sharpe), an Oxford history scholar, stiffly points out that he’s “not Jewish but obsessed with Jewish experience.” The meet-and-greet serves as an insightful way to introduce the distinct characters who make up the small group. They include divorcee Marcia (Jennifer Grey), older couple Diane (Liza Sadovy) and Mark (Daniel Oreskes, who also appeared in The Revisionist), and Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan), who fled the Rwandan genocide and later converted to Judaism.
Benji’s interactions with all of them are hilarious precisely because he’s so indifferent to any awkwardness. The character seems designed to embarrass David and chafe with everyone else. But from the first day, when he starts striking battle poses for photos in front of the memorial to the insurgents of the Warsaw Uprising, then one by one gets the others on board, it becomes clear that his function will be more complex.
Having such a livewire on a tour that can be triggering but also serve as a celebration of human resilience shifts the group dynamic, even having an impact on James.
Benji’s outward appearance is flaky — he has a package of weed mailed from New York to their Warsaw hotel — but he’s never not reflecting on the places they visit and their historical significance. This can erupt in a sudden mood swing, like his ethical problem with Jews traveling in first class on an inter-city train when their ancestors would have been crammed into the last carriage. This comes out not sanctimoniously but as a genuine internal conflict. “People just can’t walk around being happy all the time,” he tells David in defense of his outburst.
In another terrific scene, he interrupts James mid-stream to take issue with the “constant barrage of stats” as the guide is providing historical context at a Jewish cemetery. This results in a quick reset that yields one of many poignant interludes. While everyone is shaken by the visit to Majdanek on the cousins’ final day with the tour, Benji is wrecked by it. But his mood is instantly repaired by kind parting words from James, played with real sensitivity by Sharpe, who shows a different skill set to his work on season two of The White Lotus.
Making a welcome return to the screen, Grey also has moments as the group member who establishes the most surprising bond with Benji. When she shares that her daughter married a very rich man and no longer seems capable of having a real conversation, Benji replies, “Yeah, money’s like fucking heroin for boring people.” The whole cast is solid, but Egyiawan deserves special mention as someone always listening, observing, ready to show warmth and compassion in a very different way to the born-and-bred Americans.
Of course, the main track is the shifting rapport between David and Benji, with the former’s frequent exasperation, even anger, often in conflict with his lifelong affection for his cousin. The revelation of a troubling incident in Benji’s recent past is gracefully handled, not played for sentiment. And the evolving tension between them comes to a head in a lovely scene where they share a joint on a hotel roof. David admits he envies Benji his natural charm but also that he bristles at the way his cousin will abruptly switch it off without warning: “You light up a room and then you, like, shit on everything inside it.”
Cinematographer Michal Dymek, who shot Jerzy Skolimowski’s visually intoxicating EO, makes a graceful transition from the elegant compositions of the city settings to the wide-open green countryside en route to the cousin’s grandmother’s old house. That shift seems also to cement a new understanding between them, which resonates through the completion of their pilgrimage and on into their touching farewell at the airport back in New York.
Eisenberg’s first feature as director, When You Finish Saving the World, drew a mixed reception but showed promise. With A Real Pain, he demonstrates impeccable judgment and great skill at balancing sardonic wit with piercing solemnity in a movie full of feeling, in which no emotion is unearned.
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