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Jesse Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin’s ‘A Real Pain’ Brings Tears, Jokes and a Big Standing Ovation at Sundance Premiere

Jesse Eisenberg’s “A Real Pain” stars Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin as mismatched New York Jewish cousins. They’re on a trip to Poland in search of the life that their recently dead grandmother lived before the Holocaust. David is a buttoned up neurotic on OCD medicine while Benji is a charming fuckup with no prospects but a mouth that is equally hilarious and malignantly obnoxious. (You can guess who plays who). On their journey, the two visit a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, come to grips with a suicide attempt and wonder about how their own pain compares with the pain their ancestors endured during the Holocaust. At the Sundance world premiere, sobs and cries could be heard from the audience as David and Benji grapple with their past and their pain.

Nevertheless, the question and answer period afterward was funnier than an evening at the local yuck factory — and after the credits rolled, the audience leapt to its feet, giving the film an enthusiastic standing ovation. Eisenberg, all schlub self-deprecation in hiking boots, plaid shirt and sports jacket, began by thanking “the best producers you can have reading your scripts, and the best producers telling you to make it shorter.” He then brought out Culkin, who you may have heard is having a good month. Culkin gave a lopsided smile as he walked on to the stage in slip on shoes wholly inappropriate for slushy Sundance. Under different circumstances, he would have been described as the breakout star of the film. He turns a part that has some Roman Roy into something deeper and sadder. Someone asked Culkin if it was difficult to act opposite someone who was both his fellow thespian and also the director.

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“Yeah, that was a first for me,” said Culkin. “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’ve got notes for you too.’”

By now, laughter had replaced sobbing throughout the Eccles Theater, where the film debuted. Eisenberg then called Jennifer Grey to the stage. She plays a divorced Jewish mother who is part of the cousins’ group tour. She smiled and offered praise for Culkin and Eisenberg. “They were dickish, but not dicks,” said Grey with a wicked smile.

Friends not present were remembered. There’s a pivotal moment in the film where the gleefully destructive David doesn’t wake up his cousin as they travel on a train through the Polish countryside. They miss their stop and have to circle back to find their traveling partners and their luggage. Eisenberg copped that the plot twist wasn’t his idea but that of — wait for it — the presently omnipresent Emma Stone who serves as a producer on “A Real Pain.” “She’s not here,” deadpanned Eisenberg.

Joking aside, “A Real Pain” is an acutely personal story for Eisenberg. The cousins visit their grandmother’s nondescript house at one point seeking some kind of solace. “The house at the end is my family’s house,” said Eisenberg in a quieter voice. “They were taken out of there in 1939.” He still insisted that the film wasn’t overly autobiographical and depended more on the fraught relationship between the two cousins, a theme he has explored in some of his plays.

But of course it was personal. “It has a greater kind of cathartic feeling because I’m calling my dad and saying, ‘we went into the house today,'” he said. “But it’s really weird, I thought I’d have these cathartic breakdowns every day. But it just turns into a movie set. You have eight hours; the rains are coming in and the sun is in Kieran’s face and if you don’t get out of the location by six nobody gets lunch and I don’t know how those things got related. And I’m like ‘wait my dad is happy we are here.’”

Eisenberg flashed a sad smile.

“But nobody cares, you just have to keep going.”

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