Film Review – An American Pickle
An American Pickle
There has always been a sweetness to Seth Rogen that makes him easy to root for. That quality allows us to follow him through many different kinds of characters – there’s a down-to-earth, everyman sense about him that we can attach to. That works in contrast with a number of the comedies he’s been in, which has often delved into raunchy and crude material. Much of that sweetness is prevalent in An American Pickle (2020). In it, we see him play two different people that inhabit opposite ends of his onscreen persona.
The first is Herschel Greenbaum. Herschel is a Jewish immigrant who – in the early 1900s – spent most of his life doing backbreaking work for measly pay. When we first meet him, he pays his way by digging trenches, and when his shovel breaks he gets down and shovels the mud with his hands. But Herschel remains optimistic, always planning for a better life for himself and his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook). After a violent run in with some Cossacks, the two travel from Europe to America looking for a fresh start, eventually landing in New York City.
The second character Rogen plays is Ben, Herschel’s great grandson. Ben lives in the present day and is a product of the tech generation. He works as a coder whose main source of income is developing apps for businesses. Ben is closed off from the rest of the world. He doesn’t have many friends, no other living relatives, and his closest relationships are with the baristas at the local coffee shop. Ben has lost touch with his Jewish faith and very rarely visits the graves of his loved ones, instead choosing to keep his head down and focused on his work.
An American Pickle is directed by Brandon Trost and written by Simon Rich (based on his short story, “Sell Out”), but there is a sense that Rogen has a personal stake here. Much of the story involves family heritage and embracing one’s past. That’s probably why Rogen’s portrayal of Herschel is the most interesting. The movie is better when it focuses on Herschel’s story. The sweet quality that Rogen possesses comes out whenever Herschel is on screen. His ambition, determination, and naivete draws us in, and the way Herschel talks about his beloved Sarah brings a surprisingly touching emotionality to the narrative.
The main story, however, is stupid. While working in a pickle factory, Herschel accidentally falls into a vat of brine, preserving him for 100 years, awakening in the present. The plot has him and Ben, both relatively the same age now, having to navigate this “fish out of water” scenario. This is where things get bad. Instead of the two learning from each other – Herschel understanding the ways of the future world and Ben discovering the history of his family’s legacy – the plot has them fall into an absurd rivalry. Ben becomes jealous of Herschel’s hardworking tenacity and does everything in his power to undermine him. And yet the more Ben tries to sabotage Herschel’s plans, the more successful Herschel becomes. Herschel is like Peter Sellers in Being There (1979) – the more trouble he gets into, the better his life turns out.
Obviously, this is meant to be a comedy, but there’s a quality about Herschel that we miss out on. The opening prologue is the best part of the film, where we learn about Herschel’s life growing up, the small village he lived in, and his relationship with Sarah. The cinematography (John Guleserian) incorporates a 4:3 aspect ratio, making the screen look more like a square. The colors are muted to accentuate the cold, damp European weather. But that doesn’t dissipate the warmth we feel between the characters. Herschel’s attempt to court Sarah (by working to earn money to buy her a fish), is exactly the kind of sweetness that Rogen is good at.
The textures throughout this section make it appear as though we are looking at old photographs. When we fast forward to the modern day, all of that goes out of the window. In fact, the dynamic between Herschel and Ben doesn’t work for the most part. Why would the two ever have ill feelings for each other? They are the only family they have left, so why would they ever want to build walls between them? They both seem intelligent enough to understand that the other needs help adjusting to a new way of life, but the mechanics of the plot forces them to make really dumb decisions. This is especially true for Ben, who does things to Herschel that are simply cruel and unusual. What he does is so slimy that any kind of third act redemption plays as false.
Perhaps my frustration with An American Pickle lies in its unfulfilled potential. Rogen’s performance as Herschel is convincing, but he’s stuck in a story that does him no favors. There is a strong character-driven tale to be told here, but it’s bogged down by the muck of a ridiculous comedy.