A Real Pain Sundance Review: Jesse Eisenberg’s Second Film as Director Is an Incredibly Poignant and Deeply Funny

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After opening the festival two years ago with his directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, actor-turned-filmmaker Jesse Eisenberg returns to Sundance with his sophomore feature, A Real Pain. Having smoothed out several of the quirks that dragged down his first effort, Eisenberg proves with his new film that he has what it takes to be an incredible storyteller.

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A Real Pain follows two cousins (Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin) as they set out on a tour of various cultural sites in Poland in honor of their beloved Holocaust survivor grandmother, who recently passed away. It’s a story that, in the hands of another filmmaker, one would expect to be quite dour, but Eisenberg finds a way to make it both funny and emotional.

Despite the role that Holocaust memorial sites play in the story, A Real Pain is not a movie about the Jewish experience. Some of the satirical elements do work quite well — the film asks questions about the tourism industry that has popped up around these historical sites, as well as the exploitation of them by Gentiles (as seen by a non-Jewish tour guide played by White Lotus Emmy nominee Will Sharpe) — but these are not the focus.

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A Real Pain is funny and moving with great performances

Instead, this is a film about the human experience. This Holocaust remembrance tour is used as an avenue for us to get a glimpse into the struggles these people face — from grief to mental illness. What makes the film work is how Einsenberg’s script ties the pain of the modern generation to that of generations before. In the context of what those before us survived, our troubles seem small, but that doesn’t make them any less painful.

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The story’s emotional core is Culkin, who gives a deceptively funny performance. For most of the runtime, he’s cracking jokes, but over time, his facade begins to wear down and the emotional side emerges. Although it is always clear where the character’s arc is headed — and the film still tries to treat these predictable developments like “bombshell” twists — they have the intended emotional reaction thanks to Eisenberg’s subtle and empathetic hand. 

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Eisenberg’s performance is also strong, but his part is primarily to serve as the foil to Culkin. In many ways, he’s the “straight man”: the person who learns the same lesson from his more free-spirited cousin that the audience is supposed to take away from the film. However, a few scenes in which the character reveals a deep pain of his own — including one particularly rousing breakdown at a dinner table — prevent him from feeling like too much of a device.

Still, for all the pain and trauma that the film explores, A Real Pain is deeply funny nonetheless. Although it’s rarely the type of humor that will have you laughing out loud, there’s a sentiment — perhaps even a nostalgia — to seeing some of the wackier antics of this odd couple. From having a bit too much fun at a memorial to fallen soldiers to a low-stakes “heist” avoiding a train conductor, there are enough breezy moments in the film for it not to feel particularly cumbersome.

Compared to his directorial debut, the painfully annoying When You Finish Saving the World, A Real Pain is a massive step up for Jesse Eisenberg as a filmmaker. Here, he better showcases not only his own talents but also those of his collaborators — particularly Kieran Culkin. The result is funny and poignant but also unexpectedly affirming.

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A Real Pain is screening at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.

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Rating: 9/10

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Written by Sean Boelman

Articles Published: 151

Sean is a film critic, filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include music documentaries, heist movies, and experimental horror.