AN AMERICAN PICKLE
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.