An American Pickle

image Seth Rogen stars in An American Pickle

Directed by: Brandon Trost

Written by: Simon Rich

Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook and Jorma Taccone

An American Pickle is a fish-out-of-water comedy. Or should I say, fish-out-of-brine, because the film’s premise hinges on the fact that a man, Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen), has been perfectly preserved in a large vat of pickles for 100 years. Hechel is discovered by two teenage boys as they try to locate their lost drone in an abandoned Brooklyn pickle factory. Herschel is understandably confused and the film does a good job of making light of it’s frankly ridiculous set-up in a shrewd piece of meta-comedy. Herschel’s only living relative is Ben, his great-great grandson (also played by Rogen).  Ben takes him in with open arms. 

Before all this however, we get a prologue of what Herschel’s life was like in the ‘old country’. In this case the fictional town of Schlupsk, Poland. Filmic cliches about pre-war Eastern Europe are in abundance. Herschel dreams of one day tasting fizzy water, his wife, Sarah’s (Snook) dreams extend to being able to afford her own gravestone. They leave to make a better life in America, in 1919, some time later Hechel has the unfortunate incident at the pickle factory.

So, Herschel finds himself rooming with Ben, a hipster/millennial and app developer. Suffice it to say, An American Pickle at this point becomes an odd-couple comedy. The film’s Brooklyn in 2019 looks just as cliched as it’s version of small town Poland in 1919, although I am told that Williamsburg is a hipster haven. Herschel and Ben’s honeymoon period is short lived, as their values collide drastically. Both are dealing with a great deal of grief, Ben for his parents who died in a car crash 5 years previous and Herschel for his wife, who died 100 years ago, but to him it was only yesterday they had been together. Herschel wants to deal with his grief head on, he insists that Ben take him to the family plot to pray for the dead. Ben, however, is not a man for organised religion. He has repressed his grief and pushed it deep down inside of him. He has let the family plot descend into severe disrepair, much to Hechel’s disdain.

This sets off a chain of events that turns their brief friendship into rivalry. Herschel inadvertently sabotages Ben’s chances of selling his app. Ben kicks Herschel out, leaving him no choice but to have a second snap at the ‘American Dream’. From here the film really begins to feel like a drawn out comedy sketch. Even with a tight running time the film feels stretched. With it’s fruitful premise it hits upon topical issues of media manipulation, cancel culture and the polarised political and cultural climate of modern America but never quite pins down any one of them. The film’s real concern, set-up in the first act and solidified in the third, is religion, and what it means to be a Jewish immigrant and a Jewish man in present day Brooklyn. The film’s cliches only extend to its setting and secondary characters. Seth Rogen’s Herschel and Ben are fully rounded, believable characters. Rogen’s performance is also something to be admired, although the yiddish accent for Hechel is distracting at first. This is a more ‘mature’ role for him in the vein of his turns in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015) or Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (2011). Despite Rogen’s earnest performance, the film that surrounds it struggles to find a tone, while the premise calls for a comic touch, perhaps the themes of the film would have been better explored as a drama.