You probably recognize Jesse Eisenberg as the fast-talking, neurotic genius from The Social Network. Turns out he’s just as talented behind the camera. His latest film, A Real Pain, is only his second time directing, but you’d never guess it. This down-to-earth dramedy takes you on a heartfelt journey with Jesse himself and Succession’s Kieran Culkin as they sort out family drama on a Holocaust memorial tour in Poland.
The story follows two Jewish cousins, anxious David (Jesse) and wild card Benji (Kieran), who set off to honor their late grandmother’s dying wish. She narrowly escaped the Holocaust herself, so they plan to retrace her past in her hometown. Right off the bat, you can tell these dudes are total opposites. David’s wound tighter than a Dreidel and Benji’s an unpredictable loose cannon. But they used to be close, so maybe this trip will help them reconnect. Along the way, they break down their personal barriers and learn more about the suffering their ancestors endured.
It’s a heavy premise, but the guys lighten the mood with their hilarious oddball chemistry. And Poland looks straight-up stunning through the camera lens. Keep reading to see if director Jesse can stick the landing.
Odd Couple Tackles Tough Topics
At its core, A Real Pain is a quirky buddy comedy about two mismatched relatives trying to reconnect. But Jesse also weaves in some weighty looks at generational trauma along the way.
The story follows neurotic New Yorker David (Jesse) as he plans an sentimental trip to honor his late grandma, a Holocaust survivor. He decides to take his estranged cousin Benji (Kieran), who’s more of a human Labradoodle, bouncing off the walls with manic energy. Turns out grandma Dory was the heart of their family, so with her gone, the cousins have drifted apart big time.
As soon as these polar opposites link back up, the laughs and cringes kick in. Benji’s got no filter, while David freaks out over every little hiccup. But beneath all the hilarious bickering, you feel the genuine affection between them.
The tour starts off light, with Benji leading absurd photos at memorial statues as poor David facepalms. But as they travel through Warsaw and hit landmarks like the Grodzka Gate, the history starts to hit hard. Benji lashes out at the injustice of Jews being crammed into cattle cars, while David tries to intellectualize the trauma through “what if” scenarios. You see both cousins struggling to process the legacy left by their ancestors’ unimaginable suffering.
The movie really goes deep exploring how generations carry pain. There’s plenty of Benji’s irreverent humor to punctuate the darkness, but certain scenes at the camps will leave a pit in your stomach. Will revisiting the past bring the cousins back together? Can goofy Benji get his act together? A Real Pain tackles profound questions with a pop of witty charm.
Knockout Leads Anchor Top-Notch Ensemble
While the story itself tugs at the heartstrings, it’s the cast that makes A Real Pain shine. Jesse and Kieran steal the show as estranged cousins working through internal struggles, while the supporting players all provide touching depth.
Let’s start with our leading men. As anxiety-prone David, Jesse delivers his trademark mile-a-minute nervous energy in spades. You totally buy him as the rigidly responsible cousin thrown off kilter. Meanwhile, Kieran reaches new heights as the unpredictable Benji, nailing his manic charisma while subtly hinting at deeper wounds. Their oddball chemistry lights up the screen with both awkward laughs and tensions.
The supporting cast also leaves a mark. Will Sharpe (The White Lotus) shows hilarious deadpan timing as their nerdy tour guide. Grey’s Anatomy alum Jennifer Grey provides a melancholy presence as a grieving divorcee along for the ride. Veteran actors Liza Sadovy and Daniel Oreskes touchingly portray an aging couple connecting with their roots.
Amidst all the personality clashes, the actors deftly handle shifting from laugh-out-loud antics to heavy-hearted drama once the tour reaches the camps. It’s clear Jesse’s experience on both sides of the camera pays dividends in guiding these rich performances. One particular dinner table meltdown from Benji will linger with you long afterwards.
With its balance of humor and catharsis, A Real Pain lets its talented cast shine through the full emotional spectrum. The connection between Eisenberg and Culkin tugs powerfully at the heartstrings.
Jesse Deftly Juggles Tones and Visuals
Considering this is only his sophomore directorial effort, Jesse Eisenberg shows some serious skills behind the camera in A Real Pain. He walks a tonal tightrope between irreverent humor and haunting drama, while spotlighting the aching beauty of Poland along the way.
First off, Eisenberg’s script juggles the dark shadow of generational trauma with Benji’s oblivious antics masterfully. One minute the motley crew is smirking through an awkward meet-cute, the next they’re fighting back tears amidst the camps’ sobering cruelty. But the emotional arcs feel earned rather than jarring.
Beyond the writing, Eisenberg steers the filmmaking with a poignant touch. Cinematographer Michal Dymek captures soaring shots of Warsaw’s architecture and Lublin’s vibrant small-town charm before pulling back to melancholy wide angles of the countryside. And graceful piano tracks, like Chopin’s Nocturnes, provide a stirring, lyrical backdrop throughout.
Compared to his shaky first feature, Eisenberg clearly learned from past stumbles. This time around he sustains a moving air while bouncing smoothly between somber and funny, using striking visuals to underscore the madcap pilgrimage. The technical craft bolsters A Real Pain’s connected storytelling.
Eisenberg Levels Up Behind the Camera
With A Real Pain, rising director Jesse Eisenberg sticks the tricky landing on a Holocaust dramedy while showcasing polish beyond his years. Doubts about his directorial chops should vanish thanks to this deft and affecting human-scale epic.
Following a lukewarm debut effort, Eisenberg clearly heeded past criticisms when crafting his sophomore feature. This go-round he smoothly melds sorrowful generational trauma with quirky character clashes, keeping you invested through well-earned pivots. Add in two knockout lead turns from Eisenberg himself and Kieran Culkin, and A Real Pain delivers both the laughs and gut punches it reaches for.
But beyond the tonal high wire act lies the film’s beating heart – an insightfully rendered tale of two cousins seeking connection amidst slow drift and personal barriers. Their uneasy relationship gives the journey an emotional anchor, framed by Eisenberg’s eye for striking Polish scenery in poetic wide shots.
With his craft rapidly catching up to his creativity, Eisenberg cements himself as a promising actor-director here to stay. He still trades in small stories, but radiates bold talent and vision. A Real Pain marks the arrival of a discernibly humanist filmmaker to watch blossom.
A Real Pain
A Real Pain beautifully balances humor and sorrow, propelled by Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin's magnetic performances. Their chemistry injects heart into even the heaviest moments. Eisenberg directs with impressive command, proving he has the sensitivity and skill to tackle weighty topics with tact. This moving dramedy cements him as a promising talent behind the camera.
- Strong lead and supporting performances, especially from Eisenberg and Culkin
- Director Eisenberg shows growth and deftly handles tonal shifts
- Thoughtful examination of generational trauma and reconciliation
- Beautiful cinematography of Polish landscapes and architecture
- Mix of humor and emotional resonance
- Some may find the dark historical subject matter overly heavy
- Eisenberg's signature neurotic acting style doesn't appeal to all
- Culkin's wild character Benji borders on manic pixie trope
- Dramatic plot revelations can feel slightly contrived