An American Pickle (2020), directed by Brandon Trost (The Disaster Artist – Cinematographer), is a new comedy starring Seth Rogen, available exclusively on HBO Max – HBO’s new streaming platform that offers a free-trial for 7 days until they bill you at $14.99/month. The screenplay is written by Simon Rich, who adapted the story to a feature-length format from his original short story entitled “Sell Out”. An American Pickle is about a Jewish immigrant worker, Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), who inadvertently gets preserved at a pickle factory for over a century and wakes up in contemporary Brooklyn, New York, where he meets his hipster/tech savvy great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen). Though Seth Rogen does an excellent job in playing both characters on-screen (especially Herschel), An American Pickle is a bit of a stretch, in terms of plot, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering its based on a short story.
The film opens in a 4:3 aspect ratio with the title card of the year “1919” superimposed on-screen and everything hereafter occurs rather quickly, all the way through the films 88-minute length. Herschel woos his love interest Sarah (Sarah Snook), they get married, immigrate to New York and he gets a job at a pickle factory. Sarah gets pregnant, and Herschel prays for his family to become successful in 100 years time. One day, while on the job, Herschel’s area gets infested with rats and he slips and falls into a pickle conservation pool with nobody noticing. Flash forward, a hundred years later, two teenaged kids fly a drone by accident into the abandoned warehouse and open the lid to the pool – out comes Herschel. Press conferences and news media galore – a Jewish immigrant was found alive after a century of being conserved in pickle brine! At this point, you have to buy into this fantasy in order to enjoy the rest of the movie; if not, turn it off.
What would happen if someone from 1919, came to 2020? The public masses of the contemporary America depicted in the film go along with Herschel’s magical conservation in pickle brine and the film’s audiences in real-life are encouraged to do so as well. Ben Greenbaum takes on the responsibility of hosting his great-grandfather to show him the new world of taxi cabs, Amazon Alexa light controls, the city skyline, pizza, Twitter, et cetera. What reactions would or should someone like Herschel have? How would he respond to music, dancing, cars, or interracial couples? What are his opinions about the Virgin Mary and Jesus of Nazareth? Those are the questions An American Pickle has a daring time exploring.
Comedy and ridiculousness aside, this film does a great job of turning the tables with experiences from the third world versus the first world. Herschel and Ben both have lessons to learn from each other, even amid the film’s fast paced editing technique where the use of jump-cuts flourish with hilarity. Herschel peruses Ben’s upscale Brooklyn apartment, and asks him the profound question, with a wholly authentic foreign accent: “How come in this whole place, you have all this stuff, but no pictures of family?” To which Ben digs inside his closet and removes a photo album. Herschel’s first lesson for Ben pertains to family values being underappreciated and overpowered by false idols, singers and celebrities – Ben has a poster of David Bowie plastered on his wall. When Herschel learns about the passing of Ben’s parents, he suggests a prayer at their gravesite, even when Ben is adamantly opposed to practicing rituals from his Jewish roots. But when a vanilla flavored Vodka billboard gets placed above the earth burials of their ancestor’s graves, Herschel becomes determined to tear it down for good. And the film quickly turns into a battle of entrepreneurs; Ben with his “Boop Bop” start-up web application software that determines a company’s ethical rating, and Herschel with an ambitious determination of making a pickle empire in order to raise the necessary $200K to tear down the billboard above his family cemetery.
The film offers hilariously controversial jabs that test the boundaries of race and sexual orientation. There’s a jab to an LGBTQ grocery clerk who’s ringing-up dozens of cucumbers Herschel purchases for his pickle business, and he innocently calls the clerk “Little boy.” Or calling his great-grandson Ben a “Young girl” because Ben’s body isn’t masculine with testosterone. Using his ancient resources, Herschel gathers factory materials from trash bins throughout NYC, finds a commercial bag of salt in a dumpster and various recycled jars, fills the jars with cucumbers and salt, and waits for it to rain. After setting up a pickle food cart on the street corner, a popular blog host posts a story about Herschel’s organic pickles and suddenly Herschel’s fame and fortune blows through the roof with a surge in sales and social popularity.
Ben does everything in his power to dismantle Herschel’s newly found success and the rest of the film becomes tirelessly ridiculous to the point of hilarious laughter and some thought-provoking one-liners in dialogue. When Herschel gets a suggestion from a customer to hire interns who, in essence, are unpaid workers getting compensated with knowledge and experience, Herschel pauses dumbfoundedly and responds by comparing interns to “slaves”. An American Pickle is an implausible film with hilarious moments and flows with a rapid editing pace that’s shockingly unrealistic, but you’re supposed to go along with it. Seth Rogen’s performance as Herschel is wholly convincing and it’s easy to forget that he’s also playing the character of Ben. It’s not often where we see an actor do a double take of himself in a movie and do it well. We can look back at Jean Claude Van Damme in Double Impact (1991), Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (1988), Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (2014), Tom Hardy in Legend (2015) and most recently, Will Smith in Gemini Man (2019). While Seth Rogen has added himself to that talented club of actors, he’s also separated himself as superior with this convincing performance as Herschel; an authentic foreign accent, an altered physiology in comparison to Ben, and a fully-grown beard.
The main issue with An American Pickle is the way it feels like a short-film stretched out to be a feature. The pacing is too fast, further adding to the implausibility of the plot. But the outrageous moments in certain scenes satisfy with great comedy and the conflicts escalate too quickly; the editing jumps to future moments and the suddenness of the situation will make you laugh at the obnoxiousness behind it all. It could have served the story well to add a subplot regarding the generational ancestry of Herschel’s wife Sarah, and her great-grand daughter from a distant relative, who could have become a love interest of Ben’s, and the actor Sarah Snook could have reprised the role. Although, that would have imposed the risk of familial marriage with Ben falling in love with a third or fourth-cousin (even though first-cousin marriage is legal in 21 states including New York) which could have been an awkward concept, but funny, nonetheless; there’s still something there that could have been explored; showing how Herschel reacts to a modern-day lookalike of his beloved Sarah. Herschel addresses Ben’s need of help in life, considering Ben has no friends, no job, no wife or kids – the contemporary Sarah could have been his wife, or at least a long-lost relative. This additional subplot would have tacked on an extra 15-20 minutes to the film’s short-length of 88 minutes, giving the film its necessary missing ingredient. An American Pickle is a hilarious film, but it’s focused more on familial and religious issues while missing the element of love and romance; Ben and Herschel Greenbaum deserve a superior state of affairs than the ones presented in this film about a time travelling immigrant who gains the support of the entire nation based on his controversial and outdated bigotry.
Grade: C- | 70% | 2 Stars | Satisfactory