‘An American Pickle’ (Review)

An American Pickle (2020)
HBO Max

Directed by: Brandon Trost
Written by: Simon Rich
Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Sean Whalen, Jorma Taccone, Joanna Adler, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Jeff Daniel Phillips

The first eight minutes of An American Pickle are so strange and unique that I could have spent an entire movie in that world. It is in these eight minutes that we meet Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen),  a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe who, along with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook), attempts to find a life for himself in the United States. He is a hardworking man earning little pay for his job as a rat exterminator at a New York pickle factory, but he takes pride in his work. It’s enough that he wants to lay a foundation for his wife and their unborn son. Then, he falls into a vat of pickles and is frozen for a hundred years. What comes afterward is a fairly standard fish-out-of-water comedy that, while unable to quite rise to the same level as the opening eight minutes, is nonetheless charming on its own.

For when Herschel reawakens in modern day New York, he finds his sole living descendant in his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), a mild-mannered computer programmer. In the eyes of Herschel, a proudly religious Jew unafraid to get his hands dirty, the more secular and mild-mannered Ben is something of a disappointment. This disappointment leads to the conflict which supports most of the film.

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After the strangely whimsical and charming opening minutes, the film from here on becomes more standard, which is a shame. Rogen’s performances as Herschel and Ben are both admirably restrained, with Rogen’s naturally gravel-toned voice giving a sense of authenticity to Herschel’s dialogue. And while the conflicts between Herschel and Ben’s worldviews are used to decent comedic effect, one feels that the differences could have been mined for greater thematic potential. Of particular note is that both men are of the same age. A brief exploration of the different expectations placed upon men in their thirties one hundred years ago and of men in their thirties today would have been fascinating.

That’s not to say that An American Pickle isn’t worth watching. It absolutely is. Most of its jokes land, especially those of the grimmer variety, land. “We had so much in common!” Herschel says of his courtship with his wife. “Her parents were killed by Cossacks, my parents were killed by Cossacks!” And it’s through these moments of grim humor that the film’s more sentimental sequences land. While it occasionally can veer more treacly sentimentality, it balances well enough with the humor to avoid feeling too cloying.

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And that feels like more than enough to recommend the film. It’s slightly disappointing that the film never goes too far in exploring its wacky premise, but the film makes for a humorous, gently touching experience all the same. As for Rogen, it’s terrific that, after his performance as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs, we can see him in two leading roles that allow him to further tap into his more dramatic side. Part of what makes those opening eight minutes so great is that it allows us to see Rogen use both sides of himself to tremendous effect. Overall, while the rest of the movie doesn’t quite measure up to that opening sequence, it’s still got heart and humor in the spades, which is enough to give it a recommendation all the same.

Score: 7.5

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