Synopsis – An immigrant worker at a pickle factory is accidentally preserved for 100 years and wakes up in modern day Brooklyn.
My Take – Ever since he made his acting debut in the series Freaks and Geeks and gained traction with his big screen break out role in Knocked Up (2007), Seth Rogen, with his widely distinctive laugh, over the past decade has turned into quite a brand by associating himself with high quality products as a writer and producer (along with Evan Goldberg). However, despite the changing graph of his filmography, he is still best known as a comedian and for his roles in raunchy comedies like Pineapple Express, This Is the End, The Interview, Neighbors, among others, films which usually see him pair alongside talented buddies like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride, smoking weed, dishing out profanities, and having a blast of a time.
Hence keeping in mind the wacky premise of his latest, which is based on a short story by humorist Simon Rich, who also wrote the script, it felt quite appropriate that this time around he decided to go by just doubling down on himself.
Unexpectedly, the film which was supposed to be a theatrical release, before HBO Max acquired it for streaming, is a little more serious and a little more heartfelt than I expected, as it divulges into a classic fish out of water tale that we have always loved, all the while managing to throw in a few good gags to keep us entertained.
Yes, with an 88-minute run time, there is just not any kind of depth, and it avoids fully probing the topics like cancel culture and free speech with which it toys and just generally avoids the thornier areas. While it gestures toward controversial ideas, it always swerves back to its simple but profound message of togetherness and family, and the personal importance of honoring tradition and memory.
However, the most surprising aspect of the film is how it makes the strongest case yet for reconsidering Rogen as a fully-fledged dramatic actor. Though his dramatic turn in Steve Jobs (2015) was well received he hasn’t booked any similarly roles since, but here, cinematographer turned first time director Brandon Trost, provides him enough space to flex and stretch to act opposite himself, and his performance remains rock-solid throughout.
The story follows Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), who in 1920 is an Ashkenazi ditch-digger living in Shlupsk, a small Eastern European village, who falls in love with Sarah (Sarah Snook), marries her and migrates to Brooklyn, after their village is rampaged by Russian Cossacks, with simple dreams of buying their own gravestones and one day trying seltzer. Herschel even finds a job at a Jewish owned pickle factory, were he is charged with just killing rates, however, during one such quest, he accidentally falls into the pickle vat and is sealed inside.
A century later, an amateur drone disturbs the vat and Herschel emerges, fully preserved, alive and of the same age. While he is deeply disturbed to find the world completely changed and Sarah long dead, his attending doctors, in order to make his transition easier, manage to track down his only living relative, Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), his great-grandson, a freelance mobile app developer, who takes Herschel under his wing as he learns to navigate the 21st century. However, both soon begin to clash over everything from religion to emotions, resulting in damaging mishaps and misunderstandings.
What follows is part wacky opposites-attract picture, part family story, part silly caper and, most interestingly, part funny but thoughtful examination of what our ancestors would think of us, especially if they made great sacrifices to give us what we now have. The film is rife with jokes along these lines: Herschel is amazed by some convenience of modern life, but is totally nonchalant when it comes to Ben’s actual hopes and dreams. Though the pair initially bond over their physical resemblance and memories of family, Herschel’s quick temper and frustration with contemporary life tear the duo apart.
Much of the film’s middle act is dominated by silly hi-jinks, for example, Herschel starts a pickling business, becomes a minor internet celebrity, and eventually lands in hot water when he starts broadcasting his outdated societal views via a Twitter account. But it’s Rich’s understanding of the connection between Herschel and Ben, not their time-dilated differences, that won me over.
The film is at its best when it’s focusing on family drama. While Herschel is a man of devout faith and believes that hard work is the most important quality of a man, he is also a man of a forgotten age who has a short-sighted view on social issues involving religion and women’s rights.
On the flip side, Ben is passive-aggressive and unwilling to take the final step in getting an app that he has been working on for five years, into development. He is a man who lost both his family and his faith at an early age, and the grief he’s been bottling up. The worries he obsesses over like what color to make his app’s logo, for instance, are comparatively petty, and Herschel helps put them into perspective by comparing Ben’s circumstances to Herschel’s previous life as a ditch-digger and rat-smasher. Meanwhile, he tries to reconcile Ben’s seeming tepidity with his long-ago wish that all future generations of his family would be strong and prosper.
The difference in perspective between them, while exaggerated and sometimes played for laughs like Herschel’s constant solution to problems is to do violence upon any supposed enemies, is ultimately handled tenderly. The scene where Ben is coaxed into participating in the Mourner’s Kaddish, though he protests that he doesn’t remember the words, is one of the film’s most powerful sequences.
Yes, the film does occasionally skate on predictability, gets repetitive, and even takes a detour with a subplot taking on Trumpian undertones, as it explores how quickly information can blow up on social media. It aims for immediate relevance, but the comedy in these case feels flimsy in comparison to the drama of the timeless central family dynamic. Luckily, director Trost and Rich don’t spend too much time on that, and help tide the film over until it rights its course.
Performance wise, Seth Rogen rightfully dominates every frame, and most importantly, shares a good chemistry with himself. The film is testament to his acting abilities and his innate charm, proving once again why he continues to be such a watchable comedian. Rogen is also effective in dramatic sequences as well. His emotions are immediately apparent, and more importantly, immediately accessible. In a brief turn Sarah Snook too is immensely likable. On the whole, ‘An American Pickle’ is an earnest yet wacky comedy drama that rests on Seth Rogen‘s double shoulders.
Directed – Brandon Trost
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 88 minutes