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Sundance movie review: Bravura Kieran Culkin makes 'Real Pain' a pleasure

Kieran Culkin (L) and Jesse Eisenberg star in "A Real Pain." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Kieran Culkin (L) and Jesse Eisenberg star in "A Real Pain." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- As Kieran Culkin continues to win awards for his performance on Succession, the film A Real Pain, which premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, gives him another powerful showcase.

Cousins Benji (Culkin) and Dave (Jesse Eisenberg), take a group heritage tour of Poland's Holocaust sites. Their Polish grandmother recently died and they will visit her former home at the end of the trip.

Benji makes sarcastic jokes throughout the trip, but not nearly as vulgar as Culkin's Succession character. Benji's jokes are more about celebrating people than mocking them.

Benji seems sincere. He just has no filter.

Joking around is inappropriate given the gravity of the tour's subject, and Culkin can play both ends of the spectrum.

Jesse Eisenberg wrote and directed "A Real Pain." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jesse Eisenberg wrote and directed "A Real Pain." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

At the Warsaw Uprising monument, Benji encourages everyone on the tour to pose with the statue of soldiers. Dave advises against it but the activity does seem to bring the group of strangers closer.

Then Benji freaks out about luxury travel by train when he remembers how Polish Jews were led to concentration camp by train. That's valid too, and a bit more intense than the rest of the tour can address.

Kieran Culkin plays Benji in "A Real Pain." Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Kieran Culkin plays Benji in "A Real Pain." Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

In between those extremes, Benji advises the tour guide (Will Sharpe) to humanize the people they're discussing, because they're not just statistics. The visit to a concentration camp plays out in appropriate silence.

Pain here has multiple meanings. They are visiting records of historic pain, and Benji can also be a pain in the butt but he is also sensitive to the pain of others and coping with his own pain.

Kieran Culkin stars in "A Real Pain." Photo by Chris Chew/UPI
Kieran Culkin stars in "A Real Pain." Photo by Chris Chew/UPI

Dave is the sort of neurotic character Eisenberg has played before. He adds depth by expressing Dave's complex feelings of love and admiration for Benji, combined with resentment and guilt.

Eisenberg wrote and directed A Real Pain. With his second film behind the camera, Eisenberg confirms his strong sense of story and character. He also knows how to keep story moving.

Jesse Eisenberg based "A Real Pain" on his family's experience during WWII. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Jesse Eisenberg based "A Real Pain" on his family's experience during WWII. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

The tour group is comprised of memorable supporting characters. Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan) is a Rwandan who converted to Judaism and Marcia (Jennifer Grey), a divorcee making the trip for herself.

A Real Pain deals with heavy subjects, and touches on another one with a character's history of suicidal ideation. It plays to both Culkin and Eisenberg's ability to make abrasive behavior endearing and reveal the human heart underneath those defense mechanisms.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.