‘An American Pickle’ Review: A Gefilte Fish Out of Water Story
An American Pickle is rooted in a question that a lot of descendants of immigrants have pondered: “What would my ancestors think of me?” Our forefathers left behind everything they knew, sacrificed and struggled, all for the chance that future generations — us, me — might have an opportunity for a better life. If they saw what we did with that opportunity, would they be happy?
The notion that they might not is the metaphorical pickle sparked by the film’s literal pickle — the first human one in history. He is Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a Jewish immigrant who flees to America to avoid persecution by the Cossacks in the early 1900s. He and his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) settle in Brooklyn, where Herschel gets a job as an exterminator in a pickle factory. On the day the building is condemned, Herschel falls into a vat of pickles. The salt water brines and preserves his body for 100 years, until a couple of kids accidentally awaken him. His great-grandson Ben (also Seth Rogen) happens to live in Brooklyn, and he agrees to let his ancestor stay with him while he learns our society’s strange rules and customs.
These early scenes that contrast the cruelty of Herschel’s old life with the comforts of ours show a lot of promise, as do the sequences that establish the relationship between Herschel and Ben. The younger Greenbaum’s humble Brooklyn apartment looks like a palace to Herschel, although he’s less impressed by his great-grandson’s work as a freelance mobile app designer — and even more angry when he discovers the family’s burial plot has fallen into disrepair, and that Ben feels uncomfortable with his Jewish heritage. Director Brandon Trost, who’s worked as a cinematographer on many of Rogen’s films, pulls off the feat of two Rogens interacting with each other with minimal fuss. Thanks to seamless effects and two strong performances from Rogen, it’s easy to forget the same guy is playing both parts.
But those are the only consequential parts in the entire movie. It’s not shocking to learn An American Pickle was based on a short story (by Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich). More than half the movie is just Rogen and Rogen kibbitzing in Ben’s apartment, and they seem to exhaust all the concept’s smartest material in that encouraging first act. Trost and Rich (who also wrote the screenplay) establish a complicated dynamic of self-loathing, ambition, and Jewish guilt between the two Greenbaums and then they basically ignore all of it for a series of broadly comic digressions about the construction of a large roadside billboard, pickle-related health department violations, and the perils of online cancel culture.
The movie’s final act returns to the ideas that fueled its premise, and they do bring the family tensions to a satisfying conclusion. At best, though, this is 40 minutes of an okay movie surrounding 40 minutes of a bad movie. (Even with all of the diversions, An American Pickle runs less than hour and a half.) It’s hard to believe this film was ever intended for theaters; even premiering on HBO Max, it feels awfully inconsequential, like an ambitious Funny or Die sketch.
Jewish identity is a thorny subject for a lot of comedians, and as Seth Rogen’s recent interviews in support of the film show, he has some complicated thoughts on the matter. An American Pickle waves in their direction, then mostly settles for cheap jokes about Twitter controversies and hipster food trends. Those subjects could make fruitful material for comedies too, just not here, where they only fit as a clumsy facet of a broader critique of modern society. There are good things in American Pickle, like two convincing (and occasionally moving) performances from Rogen. But they’re the equivalent of a couple cucumber scraps in a giant vat of salt water.
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