2024 Sundance Film Festival: A Real Pain is a dazzling second feature from Jesse Eisenberg

Our coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival continues with a review of Jesse Eisenberg's second feature film, A Real Pain.
2024 Sundance Film Festival - "A Real Pain" Premiere
2024 Sundance Film Festival - "A Real Pain" Premiere / Neilson Barnard/GettyImages

Jesse Eisenberg became a household name in films like The Social Network, Now You See Me, and ZombielandOver the last few years, we've seen him dive into the world of writing and directing. His second film, A Real Pain, sees him return to his roots, delivering a poignant and robust follow-up. 

Benji and David Kaplan meet at the airport to head to Poland after their grandmother passed away. You can tell from the meeting that it's been a while since they've seen one another, leading to awkward conversations. The duo couldn't be more opposite as David is a family man with a corporate job while Benji is a bit of a loaner and hippy-like. 

The duo heads on a trip to navigate their homeland to attempt to get a better understanding of their culture. Several times, Benji reminds David of what their relationship used to be like. Although David tries hard to be this new version of himself, Benji brings out the fun that they used to have together. This results in David's guard coming down. 

Jesse Eisenberg returned to the Sundance Film Festival after his debut, When You Finish Saving the Worlda film I wasn't a huge fan of. You saw glimpses of strong elements in his feature film debut, but what you see in A Real Pain is maturity and a more grounded approach to his script. It's as if he decided to strip away all the minutiae and deliver a simplistic story of two relatives. 

Eisenberg wrote what he knew, and that was about his Jewish culture and upbringing, which allowed him to flex. What impressed me the most about his follow-up was how he taught a lesson about his background, allowing the viewer to engulf themselves in the profound moments of the film. When you watch the cast visit a Concentration Camp from the Holocaust, there is this silence within in this moment, and you feel like you are there and feel that haunting and sacred space with them. It's one of the most visually soul-stirring moments I've seen. 

No matter how good Eisenberg's script is, whoever decided to cast Kieran Culkin in the role of Benji hit a home run. This film simply does not work without this performance. Culkin spent many years on the HBO show Succession in Roman Roy's shoes, where we saw some dark comedy within his character. I see many similarities between Roman and Benji. Benji is often loud and overbearing and isn't afraid to say what's on his mind (much like Roman). However, deep down, there is a trauma within him that he doesn't know how to deal with those emotions. Culkin was a magician at work as Benji, who could flip that switch from funny to emotional and make you feel it. 

Ultimately, A Real Pain is a buddy-type comedy that sees Jesse Eisenberg grow as a writer and director. He perfectly balances the harrowing moments with the comedy but allows you to soak up those emotions. And Eisenberg and Culkin's ability to take the script up a notch with great chemistry is a warm welcome. I loved the film, and I can't wait to revisit it.