Prepare for the duality – dill-ity? – of Seth Rogen in HBO Max’s An American Pickle: a green-eyed fable of family, grief and fish-out-of-brine hijinks.
In 2011, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, awoke from his frosty slumber. Dropped like a hench raindrop into the hustling, bustling momentum of the present-day New York City, he was a man out of time, seeking some semblance of his past milieu while embracing the spectacular now.
Brandon Trost’s directorial debut follows a similar path; except this time, our hero isn’t an Avenger; he’s an Ashkenazi Jew with powers of the pickled and prickly persuasion. Who needs a vibranium shield when you have reusable jars?
Check out the most recent trailer for An American Pickle below:
From the opening credits – framed in ornate, silent movie-esque borders, with the gentle click of a projector undercutting each slide – we start in Schlupsk, Eastern Europe, 1919.
We find Herschel Greenbaum, a local ditch-digger, digging a big ditch (no thanks to cinema’s worst shovel). When he walks back to the village, ‘Hashem gives him a miracle’ in the form of Sarah (Sarah Snook), the woman of his dreams with ‘all her teeth, top and bottom’.
Moments after they wed, Cossacks invade, pillage and destroy their home. Next stop: New York City, where they’re greeted on Ellis Island with calls of ‘filthy Jews’ (surprisingly, one of the very few allusions to anti-Semitism). Needn’t matter, Herschel finds himself a semi-decent job whacking rats at a pickle factory.
However, his ‘American dream’ is halted after falling into a vat of pickles; quickly sealed, trapping him inside with no escape… until 100 years later, when he’s found alive, perfectly preserved in the brine. ‘The scientist explains… his logic is good,’ Herschel hilariously says.
Based on Simon Rich’s 2013 New Yorker short story Sell Out, the film then sees Herschel reconnect with his one living relative: his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen), a freelance app developer with pea milk and kombucha in his fridge. It turns out, shared ancestry isn’t always an antidote for century-apart personality conflicts.
Trost, previous cinematographer on Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Rogen vehicles like Bad Neighbours and This is the End, utilises DP John Guleserian to inject a subtle artistry into the old world; a kaleidoscope of grey and brown, shot far more comically, symmetrically, with heavy vignette, almost evoking Wes Anderson’s offbeat imagery. His modern-day, frosty Brooklyn is somehow cosy.
In adapting his tale for the screen, Rich’s script naturally covers the three-act structure. However, despite a bracing beginning chock-full with amusing observations and Bohemian energy, he and Trost struggle to hold that same fascination, despite its brief 90-minute runtime.
The idea is ridiculous, of course. That in itself isn’t in any way a problem; it’s the scatterbrained fashion in which Herschel, an everyman lifted from a far different time, is manipulated for punchlines.
His initial, eye-widening education is particularly charming, with Ben telling him: ‘I can’t wait to show you, uh, the future, man!’ As Herschel walks through his well-sized, tech’d out apartment, he doesn’t find the TV, speakers or iPad as impressive as a seltzer machine or the fact Ben owns more than 20 pairs of socks.
However, resentment soon grows over Ben’s self-interest and seemingly lax interest in honouring both his family and Jewish traditions, sparking Herschel’s artisanal pickle empire, among other contrived phenomenons (jabs at American conservatism from the east will never be as funny as Borat, unfortunately).
Beyond the watered-down satire, elements played for brief laughs are iffy: homelessness and the prevalence of unpaid workers, for example. One wacky concept at the fringe of reality is fine, but An American Pickle often demands the audience completely abandon logic.
Rogen is legitimately terrific. Herschel is a much broader, funnier figment of Rich’s imagination, allowing the actor to flesh out his silly chops with lines like ‘I will do violence’ or jolting into fisticuffs at the whoosh of a scooter.
Ben holds the soul of the movie: if you met your ancestors, do you think they’d be proud? Personal goals and aspirations more commonly outweigh the ambivalent onus of one’s family. The emotional roots of An American Pickle are its far stronger assets, and the pair’s conflicts, Ben’s frustrations and shared comfort in mourning, provide light yet effective commentary.
Internal, nuanced, more on par with his performance as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs – still his best work to date – Rogen does a superb job of establishing two different roles in almost no time at all, even more effective than Tom Hardy’s Krays. Via some cutting edge wizardry, as well as shooting the whole movie twice, it’s seamless.
For a Rogen showcase, An American Pickle is worth the price of admission. The film itself never reaches the heights of belly laughs or tear-laden lips. However, it is immensely likeable, if just a tad inconsequential.
An American Pickle is in UK cinemas from August 7.
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