Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin Balance Trauma and Humor in “A Real Pain”

Kieran Culkin holds a microphone in front of a multicolor 2024 Sundance Film Festival backdrop. Jesse Eisenberg stands to his right.

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 20: (L–R) Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “A Real Pain” premiere at Eccles Theatre. (Photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons

As Jesse Eisenberg took the stage at the January 20 premiere of A Real Pain, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the Eccles Theatre crowd, a warm commemoration for his ninth film at the Sundance Film Festival. The occasion also marks his second time attending the Festival as a writer-director, following his feature debut When You Finish Saving the World (2022 Sundance Film Festival). With A Real Pain, he explores scales of pain and intergenerational trauma against the historical backdrop of the Holocaust. 

The U.S. Dramatic Competition film follows New York Jewish cousins David (Eisenberg) and Benji (an impeccable Kieran Culkin) as they embark on a tour through Poland to honor their late grandmother, culminating in a visit to her home before she fled from World War II. The anxiety-ridden David prefers to stick to the rules, while Benji is a frayed live wire, spontaneous and charismatic, yet in deep pain. As they visit Holocaust memorial sites, including a concentration camp, the pair try to reconcile their relationship with each other and their family history. 

A Real Pain has a lighter touch than one might imagine from the heavy premise, and the Eccles audience had plenty of laughs to go with teary sniffles. Fittingly, that same energy carries over into the alternately riotously funny and reflective post-premiere Q&A.

Introducing his co-lead, Eisenberg remarks, “I’ve never seen a greater performance in person and maybe on screen except, I don’t know, On the Waterfront, but I don’t even remember it that well,” earning a sputter from Culkin and appreciative laughter from the crowd. Culkin shows off his own comedic timing when asked about his experience being directed by his fellow actor.  “Yeah, that was a first for me,” he says. “I felt like there was a pretty good rapport right away. But then right after the first scene, he’d be like ‘cut’ and start giving me notes, and my first thought was like, ‘Bitch, I got notes for you too.’”

(L–R) Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg pose together ahead of the “A Real Pain” premiere. (Photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

Both Benji and David have clear shades of other characters that Culkin and Eisenberg have respectively played. One audience member wondered whether the cousins reflect the actors’ own personalities. “It’s this tiny thing that happens, which is you see each other as the character because you’re spending eight hours of the day in character. You know the person more in the voice of the character, and then you start attributing — sometimes probably erroneously so — their other behavior to the character. Well, of course, Kieran’s eating a salad,” Eisenberg quips. “It would be wonderful [and] an expensive thought experiment to switch roles and do the movie again. [Let’s] check with the investors if there’s anything else in the pot.” 

The fraught relationship between the mismatched cousins is one that Eisenberg has previously explored in some of his plays, including one about an American who visits his survivor cousin in Poland. While A Real Pain is not strictly autobiographical, the film draws closely from the filmmaker’s family history. “The house that we visit at the end is my family’s house. They were taken out of that house in 1939,” he says, growing reflective. 

Later, when asked about his personal experience with the film, Eisenberg elaborates, “It has a greater kind of cathartic feeling, because I’m calling my dad and saying, ‘We went into the house today that [great-aunt] Doris lived in.’ But it’s really weird, I thought I would have these cathartic breakdowns every day. And really what happens is when you get to any set, and I should have known this, but it just turns into a movie set because you have eight hours and the rain’s coming in and the sun is in Kieran’s face, and you have to be out of this location by 6 or nobody gets lunch, and I don’t know how those two things got related but they work.” 

Taking on a more wistful tone, he adds, “And I’m like, ‘Wait, but my dad is happy that Doris lived in there,’” before speeding up his words again, which are punctuated by audience laughter. “But like no one cares, keep going! It just continues to remind me that movies are this weird special thing where we get to take over people’s houses for a few weeks and no one gives a shit.” 

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here

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