THE STORY – An immigrant worker falls into a vat of pickles and is brined for 100 years. The brine preserves him perfectly, and when he emerges in present day Brooklyn, he finds that he hasn’t aged a day.
THE CAST – Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook & Jorma Taccone
THE TEAM – Brandon Trost (Director) & Simon Rich (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 89 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Comedy is subjective. Let’s get that out of the way right upfront. If a joke is funny to me and not funny to you, there’s very little I can do to get you to laugh at the joke, and heaven forbid I try to explain the joke, which just sucks all the fun out of anything. So when I say that at best, I chuckled a few times and outright guffawed only once during Brandon Trost’s Seth Rogen new comedy vehicle “An American Pickle,” it should go without saying that on that front, your mileage may vary. But I would argue that the main goal of “An American Pickle” is not laughter. Instead, the film is much less a comedy than it is a sweet, simple fable about the importance of family. At least, that’s where its heart seems to be.
The story, adapted by Simon Rich from his own novella, concerns one Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a ditch-digger in turn of the century Eastern Europe who immigrates to the United States with his wife (Sarah Snook) after the Cossacks sack their Jewish village on their wedding day. Herschel wants to build a better life for his family, to give both himself and his wife their biggest dreams (a cemetery plot with their own gravestones and feeling the bubbles of seltzer water on his tongue). Unfortunately, those plans get put on hold when one day, while working at a pickle factory, he accidentally falls into a vat of pickles and is left to brine for a hundred years. When he is finally discovered – perfectly preserved by the brine – he meets his one living relative: Great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Seth Rogen), a Brooklynite hipster who has been developing an app to grade products and companies on how ethical they are.
There are chuckles to be had as we watch Herschel’s amazement at the world around him (his awe at Ben’s SodaStream is palpable), and even as we watch his old world views brush up against those of the modern-day; after Herschel starts his own pickle business by locally sourcing all his ingredients (from the trash), the denizens of Brooklyn are at first charmed by his authenticity, before being confronted with his stuck-in-the-early-1900s beliefs, like how women are naturally lesser than men. But while the plot of the film centers on Herschel, its heart is focused on Ben. His doting parents were killed in a car crash a while back, and it’s clear from the outset that he hasn’t truly mourned for them. He’s also grown distant from his Jewish heritage, telling Herschel as they visit the family plot that he no longer remembers the words to the Mourner’s Kaddish. Herschel acts as the unstoppable force to Ben’s immovable object, and Rogen does expert work mapping the journeys of both men as they twist and turn towards an understanding and acceptance of each other and themselves.
In fact, Rogen is by far the best thing about the film, and quite possibly a career peak for the actor. His subtle vocal and physical work clearly separates the two characters from each other, but also connects them – Herschel may barrel forward with the laser-focused intensity of an Old World laborer when he walks, as opposed to Ben’s loping gait, but both men adopt a similar, slightly hunched-over posture when they feel sad, and have the same smile when they feel happy. After the prologue in the early 1900s, the film seems slightly unsure of where it wants to go tonally, but Rogen’s warm, grounded, quiet performance eventually molds the film to its shape, keeping everything in the lightly bittersweet realm of Yiddish comedy.
The film’s attempts at topicality fall somewhat flat, partially because the screenplay essentially has only one joke (“Herschel’s Old World views are so cringe-worthy today, huh?!”) and partly because that part of the plot is easy and expected. The fact that this storyline takes up most of the film’s running time is unfortunate, because when the story focuses on Herschel and Ben’s connection, and how the idea of family and togetherness has changed over time, “An American Pickle” is surprisingly sweet and sincere. That emotional core is the real engine powering the story, not the fish-out-of-water plot, and when the film focuses on that, it becomes almost genuinely affecting. But when paired with the rote comedy and story beats of the rest of the film, “An American Pickle” ends up being a pleasant watch, no more, no less. A little more salt would have gone a long way towards making this a full meal, but instead, it’s just a nice snack.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A sweet story told with a lot of heart. Seth Rogen giving a very fine double performance.
THE OSCARS – None