Jesse Eisenberg's “A Real Pain” stars Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin as unlikely New York Jewish cousins. They are on a trip to Poland in search of their recently deceased grandmother's life before the Holocaust. Benji is a buttoned-up neurotic on compulsive medication, while David is a charming bastard with no prospects but a mouth that's equal parts hilarious and viciously obnoxious. (You can guess who is playing who). On their journey, the two visit a Polish concentration camp, deal with a suicide attempt, and wonder how their own pain compares to the pain their ancestors suffered during the Holocaust. At the Sundance world premiere, sobs and screams could be heard from the audience as David and Benji confront their past and their pain.
Still, the question-and-answer session that followed was funnier than an evening at the local crap factory – and after the credits rolled, the audience jumped to their feet and gave the film an enthusiastic standing ovation. Eisenberg, all schlub-self-deprecating in hiking boots, checked shirt and sports jacket, first thanked “the best producers who can let you read your scripts and the best producers who tell you to make it shorter.” Then he brought Culkin, who you may have heard is having a good month. Culkin smiled wryly as he took the stage in slip-on shoes completely inappropriate for the muddy Sundance festival. Under other circumstances he would have been described as the film's breakout star. He transforms a Roman Roy-esque role into something deeper and sadder. Someone asked Culkin if it was difficult to perform opposite someone who was both his fellow actor and the director.
“Yeah, that was a first for me,” Culkin said. “I immediately felt like there was a pretty good relationship. But then right after the first scene he said, 'Cut' and started taking notes, and my first thought was, 'Bitch, I have notes for you too.'”
By now, the sobs had been replaced with laughter throughout the Eccles Theater, where the film premiered. Eisenberg then called Jennifer Gray onto the stage. She plays a divorced Jewish mother who joins the cousins' group trip. She smiled and praised Culkin and Eisenberg. “They were fat, but not dicks,” Gray said with an evil smile.
Friends who were not present were remembered. There is a pivotal moment in the film when the cheerfully destructive David fails to wake his cousin as they ride a train through the Polish countryside. They miss their stop and have to turn back to find their fellow passengers and their luggage. Eisenberg said the plot twist wasn't his idea, but rather – wait for it – the ever-present Emma Stone, who serves as producer on “A Real Pain.” “She’s not here,” Eisenberg said expressionlessly.
All joking aside: “A Real Pain” is an extremely personal story for Eisenberg. In search of solace, the cousins visit their grandmother's nondescript house. “The house at the end is my family’s house,” Eisenberg said in a quieter voice. “They were taken away from there in 1939.” He still insisted that the film was not overly autobiographical and related more to the strained relationship between the two cousins, a theme he had explored in some of his plays.
But of course it was personal. “It has a greater cathartic feeling because I call my dad and say, 'We went to the house today,'” he said. “But it’s really weird, I thought I was going to have these cathartic breakdowns every day. But it just turns into a movie set. You have eight hours; It's raining and the sun is shining on Kieran's face, and if you don't leave the venue by six o'clock, no one gets lunch, and I don't know how these things are connected. And I think, 'Wait a minute, my dad is happy we're here.'”
Eisenberg smiled sadly.
“But nobody cares, you just have to keep going.”