If you’re going to build a film around the complicated magnetism of a central character, you couldn’t find anyone better to play them than Kieran Culkin. Most known for his award-winning performance as Roman Roy in the HBO series “Succession,” he has the type of screen presence where his magnetism can shift between mirth and melancholy with an ease that astounds at every turn.
Still, there is always a question of whether even the most talented of actors can emerge beyond their most acclaimed role. While there are echoes of Roman in Culkin’s role in the bittersweet dramedy “A Real Pain,” he still proves that he is much more than his past television character, as he gives what is among his absolute best performances to date.
Starring alongside Jesse Eisenberg, who also wrote and directed the film, Culkin embodies the charismatic yet troubled Benji Kaplan. When we first meet him, he is sitting alone in an airport as the camera traces its way through the crowd. He doesn’t seem well, but when his neurotic cousin David (Eisenberg) arrives, he is smiling and cracking jokes like he was having the time of his life amongst the weirdos at the airport.
This becomes the recurring balance that Culkin strikes to make a character study as painfully honest as it is uproariously funny. As we soon learn, the duo are reuniting for the first time in quite a while to go on a guided tour through Poland in memory of their grandmother who has recently passed away. As they bumble their way through the country, smoking weed on rooftops and sneaking through a train after missing their stop, the film becomes transcendent through Culkin’s crushing performance.
Premiering Saturday at Sundance, this is the second film that Eisenberg has brought to the festival after his feature debut “When You Finish Saving the World” was shown here in 2022. While the filmmaker said in an introduction prior to the film that he only finished this latest work 10 days before it screened at the festival, it feels like a much more confident and assured work across the board. Just as Culkin expertly strikes a difficult tonal balance, so too must Eisenberg as he takes us through some of the darkest parts of history and finds a way to mesh them with offbeat humor.
A trip to a concentration camp right outside one of the cities they stop at on the tour is shot with the necessary reverence and respect that helps to inform the journey we’re on. That one of the film’s best jokes comes moments after doesn’t take away from that. Rather, it enhances what it is that the film is getting at. Amidst the laughs, there is a lingering sadness.
This is all channeled through Culkin who bears this weight on his shoulders like it is nothing. He leaps through each scene, knocking over our expectations with razor sharp comedic timing and then shifts into more sad reflections without him ever missing a step. Though Eisenberg does an effective job as the straight-laced cousin, it is Culkin who remains the driving force. There is a rage that bursts out from inside Benji, resulting in occasionally cruel moments that bring a raw honesty that proves illuminating.
More than the details we come to learn about the character’s past struggles, the most painful moments happen when we see Culkin’s face become an etching of sadness. For all the ways Benji tries to hide from his pain, quickly changing the subject when asked about how he is doing by David, he also runs towards it. He desperately wants to feel something, but is terrified at being alone when he must do so.
Capturing all of these fraught emotions is no easy feat, but Culkin completely disappears into Benji’s complicated psyche so fully that he proves mesmerizing. One can’t undersell how brilliant he is in the part, so much so that it can feel a little empty when the film steps away from him. This gap has a purpose, but it still leaves you wondering about what we missed.
However, considering that Benji wants to remain impenetrable as a person in one moment and fully open about his inner emotional states in others, it speaks to how he is still sorting through much in his life. Your heart breaks for him, but Culkin never lets the film fall into mawkishness as he brings a playful mischievousness right alongside the agony that Benji is navigating alone.
In particular, the way the first and final scenes speak to each other in the small differences found in Culkin’s performance lay you completely flat. After all this time spent with Benji, everything and nothing in his world has changed. And, yet, in this simple yet tragic finale, we get the sense that he has been going through a lifetime of such contradictions.
Though the film only provides a snapshot of a moment in time, Culkin’s performance is so spectacular that it makes it feel as though we have known Benji forever. Just when we realize this, he’s gone again, drawn back to sitting alone amongst his fellow airport weirdos, hoping someone, anyone, will see him.
“A Real Pain” is a sales title at Sundance.
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