Written by: Hannah Tran | February 5th, 2024
A Real Pain (Jesse Eisenberg, 2024) 5 out of 5 stars*
While we’re all familiar with Jesse Eisenberg the actor, less of us are familiar with Jesse Eisenberg the writer and director. His 2022 film When You Finish Saving the World is a funny, charming, and underrated debut. His sophomore effort, A Real Pain, which follows two mismatched cousins, David and Benji, on a Holocaust tour through Poland after the death of their grandmother, surpasses his first movie with equally hilarious and emotional characters and a more finely tuned grasp over story and style. Stepping into the role of writer, director, and leading man this time, Eisenberg plays to his strengths in each of these categories and exemplifies why he is one of the most promising new directors.
The characters themselves feel specifically written for the actors. While Eisenberg’s David isn’t unlike the anxious and often relatable characters he’s played before, Eisenberg sets himself up to deliver a uniquely moving performance here. Kieran Culkin (No Sudden Move), as Benji, however, is the true heart of the film, and his chaotic, hilarious, and genuine performance rises to the occasion. There’s also an overarching sense of reality that underlies the absurdity of this story and its characters, and the supporting cast particularly embodies the film’s strength at balancing both humor and believability.
A Real Pain is the perfect union of sharp actors and sharp writing. Behind the humorous ironies and memorable one-liners is a powerful meditation on history, suffering, and adulthood. Eisenberg creates a wonderfully symmetrical story that shifts from a more lighthearted first half into a somber second half and bridges both with a cohesive sense of tone and tension. Each moment feels consequential, and there are many scenes that stand out from both halves, such as a lighthearted moment at a war statue and a powerful voiceover by Will Sharpe, as their tour guide, about the transformation of a city.
These two scenes, in particular, are great examples of how well the technical craft honors the story. There are moments when the camera moves as if it’s an action sequence and others when it seems to sit still in contemplation. Similarly, Eisenberg uses the contrast between sound and silence to great effect. This proves especially effective in a scene at a concentration camp, in which the words hang heavy in the eerily silent air. Moreover, the choice of Chopin, a Polish composer who died roughly a hundred years before the Holocaust, as the primary source of music in the film not only compliments the tone but also its ideas about past and present national identity.
The deceptive simplicity of A Real Pain allows Eisenberg to uncover complex themes in a natural and straightforward way. What is left at the end of these meaningful 90 minutes is a sentimental, but never cloying, story about two men who find a moment, maybe their last, of true connection as they reflect on their familial past before moving onto their individual futures.
[A Real Pain just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.]
*Starting in 2024, all Film Festival Today reviews will now be rated out of 5 stars, rather than the previous 4-star system.