An American Pickle
“An American Pickle” is built on an absurd premise: A Jewish immigrant in 1920 falls into a vat of pickles and, perfectly preserved by the brine, wakes up 100 years later to find New York a strange and confusing place. On paper, it’s patently ridiculous, but great films have been built on less. The premises of “Groundhog Day” or “Ghostbusters” are no less silly, but they succeed in the execution.
Based on a New Yorker short story by comedy writer Simon Rich, “An American Pickle” tries to be serious and silly at once, and it ends up being neither. Seth Rogen, who also produced, plays a dual role: Herschel Greenbaum, who came from Eastern Europe to build a better life for himself with his wife (Sarah Snook), only to have his plans sidetracked by that fateful dip in a pickle barrel, and Ben Greenbaum, Herschel’s great-grandson, his only living relative when he is awakened from his briny slumber. Ben, a freelance app developer, brings Herschel back to his spacious Brooklyn apartment, and sets out to show him the modern world.
Rogen stretches his acting chops to play Herschel, adopting a thick Russian accent and adorning his face with a scowl meant to reflect his hardened upbringing. It’s an effective performance that hints at potentially darker roles in Rogen’s future, if he wants them. The character of Ben is a little more in his wheelhouse. An overgrown child who lost his parents to a car crash and has had trouble moving on, it’s a nice fit for Rogen, whose attempts at dramatic acting in films like “Steve Jobs” and “Take This Waltz” usually stop at barely-concealed anger. If nothing else, it’s clear that Rogen understands the material: Both Herschel and Ben are in grief, and he captures the complex pressure that can arise between family members whose very existence can force buried pain to the surface.
It’s disappointing then that the film backs away from this rich and tender relationship for shallower pursuits. The dynamic between Ben and Herschel is ripe for exploration, but the script by Rich travels to cartoonish extremes. Herschel accidentally gets Ben arrested, which puts the kibosh on the sale of his app. Herschel starts a successful artisanal pickle company, and Ben tries to thwart it out of jealousy. The film has a good time poking fun at Brooklyn hipsters who will happily fork over ten dollars for a pickle if the seller looks authentic, but its critique of modern culture – there are also jabs at Yelp and Twitter – lack any real bite, and it’s a distraction from the richness of the family drama.
We might say that “An American Pickle” is a film at odds with itself, stuck between half-hearted jokes and underdeveloped dram, but its breezy tone suggests a lack of interest in either side. It has a strange confidence in its ability to mix irreconcilable styles. Propelled by the slick visual style of newcomer Brandon Trost, the story blows past its ludicrous premise, launches into self-serious portrayals of intergenerational resentment, stops for a little social satire, and then – finally and weirdly – arrives at a profound reverence for Judaism. Each element stands well enough on its own, but put together, it’s a head-spinning experience.
And a word about the finale: Rogen found himself in hot water last week when his comments about Israel went viral, and while his political views have no bearing on the film, there is clearly a detachment from the Jewish suffering he wishes to depict. An early scene set in the old country ends in a massacre, but it’s depicted glibly. Blood splatters across Herschel’s face, and the film plays it for laughs. Genocide isn’t off-limits in comedy – Mel Brooks has made it work, for example – but here it’s a symptom of the film’s biggest problem, a reluctance to truly understand its characters, the world, or even the ideas it depicts. It’s a half-measure, or perhaps a half-sour, and definitely an acquired taste.
An American Pickle streams this Friday on HBO MAX.