A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2020

AN AMERICAN PICKLE jjj

MAX ORIGINAL MOVIE

2020, PG-13, 90 mins.

Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum / Ben Greenbaum  /  Sarah Snook as Sarah Greenbaum  /  Jorma Taccone as Liam

Directed by Brandon Trost  /  Written by Simon Rich, based on his own short story 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

If you think that movies are utterly bereft of original ideas these days then clearly you haven't seen the new HBO Max comedy AN AMERICAN PICKLE, which contains a premise that has never been done before...or maybe it has, but just not quite like it.  

The film stars Seth Rogen (also a producer here) playing a turn of the last century Jewish immigrant that accidentally finds himself locked in a huge vat of pickles and is preserved via its brine for one hundred years, after which time he re-awakens in modern day New York.  

Let that settle in for a bit.  

Yes, AN AMERICAN PICKLE - based on the 2013 Simon Rich short story SELL OUT - is an awfully strange movie containing a really out-there concept.  It does awkwardly segue between time travel fantasy, all out farce, social and political satire, and sentimental family drama with somewhat inconsistent results.  But what really helps overcome this is the splendid dual performance contained within by Rogen as the immigrant and his contemporary relative, which gives the on-screen funnyman a real opportunity to sink his teeth into two distinct personas. 

AN AMERICAN PICKLE's opening sections are its finest as we are introduced to Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen), who is a menial ditch digger from the fictional European town of Schlupsk circa 1919.  He's single, friendless, and seems kind of broken down by life, that is until he has a very chance meet-cute with the future love of his life in Sarah (a superb Sarah Snook), who he attempts to win over with random acts of kindness.  He's smitten with her from day one, mostly because, in his own words, she's "strong and has all her teeth."  Just when their courtship leads to marital bliss, vile Russian Cossacks swoop in and murder everyone in their wedding party...except the bride and groom.  It's not necessarily the makings of a happy-go-lucky, feel good period comedy, but the outlandish tone established early on only helps make the inherent darkness of the material seem more amusingly macabre. 

Despite witnessing the extermination of everyone they new, the resilient Greenbaums decide to test things in America and set sail for Ellis Island, but it soon becomes clear that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness doesn't come easily for immigrants.  With a newly pregnant wife and desperately needing work, Hershel decides to take a low respect job at a local pickle processing factory, where he makes extra pay for beating rats to death.  One day he takes a very nasty trip and falls into one large barrel of brine just as the factory is being decommissioned.  The barrel's lid is nailed shut over him, trapping him in what should have been a death sentence...but the brine preserved him, and, as mentioned, he's found and re-awakened by some Brooklyn youth in 2020.  He becomes an overnight sensation, and the media, rather hysterically, seems shockingly receptive to the official explanation for his century long preservation. 

 

 

In his attempts to acclimate to a complete foreign and technologically advanced modern world, Hershel is introduced to his closest living relative, a great, great grandson named Ben (also Rogen), who's a skinny jeans wearing hipster millennial that's trying to get his app off the ground with some much needed investment (he too has experienced loss, seeing as his own dead parents investing heavily in his failed project).  Initially, Hershel is elated to meet a blood descendent and to see a hundred years worth of family photos.  Plus, Ben introduces him to the once inaccessible world of seltzer water ("You must be thirsty," Ben asks at one point, "I mean, you were brined for like a century. And there’s salt in brine, right? So you must be pretty parched!").  However, the intimidating world of 2020 greatly confuses Hershel (try explaining to him what a freelance mobile app developer is).  He's taken slightly aback by a few things, like Ben being incapable of speaking fluent Yiddish on top of not being religious in the slightest (he did have a JUMANJI themed bar mitzvah, but that's it).  One thing that really upsets Hershel is when he sees a garish Vodka billboard over the cemetery where his beloved and long since dead Sarah is buried.  He mistakes this for the re-emergence and return of the Cossacks and vows "violence" against the billboard team, which he assaults.  That sends Ben and Hershel to the slammer, and upon release the one good, prospective investor in Ben's app bails because of his new criminal record, which causes the lad to develop a hate on for the poor, fish-out-of-water Hershel. 

Let's just say that this is just the beginning of many of the bizarre narrative detours that AN AMERICAN PICKLE takes, which, to its credit, never quite goes down the path you'd expect.  Growing resentful of the petulant selfishness of his living relative, Hershel makes a solemn vow to become - wait for it - his own independent pickle salesmen to earn the required $200,000 needed to buy and restore the Sarah's cemetery.  Wouldn't you know it, he becomes instantly successful, much to the chagrin of Ben, who counter vows to sabotage his great, great grandfather via some sneaky social media campaigning.  This might not be the wisest method for Ben (remember, Hershel is prone to "doing violence"), and a very public battle of wills ensues between the pair, with both going to great lengths to ruin the other.  A lot of these sections of the film reminded me considerably of BEING THERE, which also featured a fairy tale styled story about the unlikely rise to power of a very simple minded man.  Granted, Hershel's lack of understanding of how the world of today operates hurts him on his path to success. 

Parts of AN AMERICAN PICKLE that work the best for me are ones involving Hershel trying to get a grasp for not only the tech of today, but also societal norms.  For example, Hershel's early pickle business achievements are built on the backs of exploiting cheap labor (in his case, college students), which Ben recognizes and uses against him in a Twitter smear campaign.  Hershel's worldview about, say, religion, a woman's place in the world, and homosexuals comes from a completely antiquated time, which Ben further uses to his diabolical advantage.  Hershel is not an evil man, but he's hopelessly out of time and place, which means that he says things acceptable in his age, but if uttered today would quickly allure the wrath of cancel culture.  AN AMERICAN PICKLE is an ultra silly farce, to be sure, but it has some genuinely intriguing thematic insight into the best and worst aspects of today's online culture and our slavish reliance on the technology of social media.  That, and it also tries to explore the internalized guilt that some like Ben have over their own ethnic heritage and the religion that typifies his people.   

Rogen is the real glue that holds this film together, mostly because he's so damned good in a very tricky dual performance.  He manages to play both Hershel and Ben with their own unique brand of likeable sweetness and hot temperedness.  Both men are good people that are driven to extremes when the chips are down, often to their own respective detriment.  If I had to pick one role then I'd say that Hershel requires the most performance dexterity, because in a lesser actor's hands he could have been a one-note SNL caricature on autopilot, but here Rogen manages to embrace the sheer broadness of this man while also exploring hidden depths or pain and resentment.  The role of Ben is a little more within Rogen's comfort window and acting wheel house, but he's good in the part as well, and director Brandon Trost (making his filmmaking debut after being a cinematographer on a multitude of previous Rogen films) really makes you believe - albeit with ample camera tricks, editorial ingenuity, and VFX - that we are witnessing a war between two completely different people.  AN AMERICAN PICKLE is nuttier than a fruitcake throughout, but these characters seem relatable and emotionally grounded.   

Unfortunately, AN AMERICAN PICKLE suffers from a lack of genuine cohesion with all of its divergent parts.  This film tries to do a lot with its relatively scant 90 minute running time, but it often never seems to settle on a unifying tone.  Sometimes, it's a religious satire and other times a social and political one, whereas other moments in the film aim for legitimate dramatic heartache and pain that's awkwardly vying for attention alongside scenes of pure absurdist comedy.  There's nothing wrong with trying to marry a heartfelt vibe with profound messages about family and spirituality in a film, but it's waging a battle with the other slapstick elements here, which leads one to contemplating what someone like a Charlie Kauffman could have done with this outlandish material.  Plus, much of the subplot regarding Ben's avoidance of his family's Judaism is only sketchily developed, which makes the larger payoffs later in the film ring somewhat hollow.  Still, I'm recommending AN AMERICAN PICKLE because of the endless, easy going charm that Rogen brings to both of his troubled characters on top of the fact that the film simply dares to embrace its sheer and limitless ridiculousness like a badge of honor.  

It might also convince you to venture out to pick up a jar of deliciously crunchy Valics from your local supermarket.  

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