An American Pickle and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Brandon Trost
For weeks I’ve been grumbling about the slow drip of releases the last few months, but now I find myself spoiled for choice as I’ve not only got Black is King to still watch on Disney+, I find out there’s a Seth Rogen movie on HBO Max as well! Even with his performance in Long Shot coming off as obnoxious and juvenile, I’ve always had a soft spot for the guy ever since I saw Knocked Up which is a movie I love and have seen so many times that I’d probably put in my top ten comedies ever made. He’s never really reached THAT level of brilliance since then (especially working without Judd Apatow), but I’m always interested to see what he does and he’ll surprise you every once in a while something great like The Night Before and Sausage Party. Does this latest outing from the guy end up being one of his best performances yet, or is there a reason they’re not saving this one until theaters open back up? Let’s find out!!
Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is a simple man from the Eastern European village of Schlupsk who moves to America with his loving wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) to start a new life and establish himself and his family as part of the American Dream. He gets a job bashing rats with a stick at a Pickle Factory which certainly pays more than his ditch-digging job back in Schlupsk, and despite the massive xenophobia against Jewish people in this country, things couldn’t be looking any brighter! That is until Herschel falls into a pickle vat mere moments before the factory is closed down and his body is left forgotten for a hundred years until some kids stumble into the factory and open the vat; freeing Herschel who was perfectly preserved in the pickle brine and therefore hasn’t aged a day because of SCIENCE! On the plus side, he now lives in a world with better food, less Polio, and better sticks to bash rats with. On the other hand, everyone he knows and loves is dead. Six of one, half a dozen of the other I suppose, but what might just tip the scales into this being a net positive is that he has one living relative that has agreed to take him in; his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Seth Rogen). With his great-grandson being the last connection he has to the life he had before, will Herschel be able to move forward with his life and find fulfillment in this strange new world? Can Ben help his great grandfather through this challenging time, and are there perhaps challenges of his own that he will now be forced to confront? Does this movie get utterly derailed for no good reason after a while!? You tell me; does a pickle taste good on a hamburger!?
There’s a version of this movie that could have made it on my Top Ten list this year, and it’s the one we saw in the trailers and in the first thirty minutes of the movie. Sadly the great ideas at play, and most importantly the TONE it was setting, couldn’t be sustained throughout the film’s running time and instead we get a movie that wants to tell you how smart it is instead of one that wants to share what it’s feeling with you. I couldn’t tell you how much creative control Seth Rogen has on his recent movies, but he seems to be the common denominator on this and his previous film Long Shot which share a lot of the same problems; though for what it’s worth this seems like a story much closer to him as a person than Longshot and I’m not sure if that makes its eventual descent into smarmy self-righteousness that much worse. Perhaps I’m naïve or maybe there’s an unexamined aspect of my own privilege that caused me to rolls my eyes at where this film ultimately goes, but I can’t imagine that taking such a personal story and blowing it up into this big examination of culture war was the best direction to go in. I’m pretty sure An American Tail wouldn’t have been improved by the second half railing against The New York Times’ softball coverage of the rise of the Nazi party, but perhaps there wasn’t enough in the budget for that.
Where the movie succeeds is with its characters and the novelty of its premise; both of which find a perfect mix between delightful and melancholic. Yes, the idea that a man could be “perfectly preserved in pickle brine” is silly on its face and the film acknowledges this with the way it cheekily glosses over the “science” of it all, but the consequences of this are felt throughout the entire movie and ESPECIALLY thru Seth Rogen’s performance. Whether you got to the present heroically fighting Hydra or by slipping into a giant bucket of salty water, there’s a lot to adjust to; starting from fresh with a new life in a world you don’t understand. This is where the movie succeeds, with Herschel trying to come to terms with the world around him and what he’s missed being gone for so long; not to mention the pieces of his life that are still around which is where Ben comes into the story. Sure, Seth Rogen is PROBABLY too old to be playing this part as the character seems to be in his late twenties at most, but he captures that millennial anxiety of being aimless and directionless in a world that on its surface appears to have limitless opportunities. He’s better off than most with a trust fund and a decent New York City apartment, but the emotional baggage he carries with his life, his family, and even his heritage has kept him from growing past his current self, and having a living reminder of all that just wake up inside an abandoned pickle factory only ends up exacerbating his anxiety and frustrations. This SHOULD have been it; this should have been the WHOLE movie! Just watching Seth Rogen bounce off of himself as he plays both parts was an absolute joy and I would have gone so far as to set the majority of it simply inside of his apartment; somewhat like a play where you can really hone in on the character dynamics and let the tension build just through the dialogue. Instead, things get silly in the annoying smarmy way instead of the sincerely earnest way as we come to the end of the first act.
I’m not going to say that the rest of the movie has NO merit, but almost everything that I loved about this movie, the characters, the awkwardness, the tightness in your chest as Herschel’s understanding of his great-grandson’s problems became clearer and clearer, all went out the window as soon as Herschel storms out of the apartment and starts a pickle selling business. The movie then gets away from being about its central characters’ interpersonal relationship and is instead a bunch of jokes about memes, viral sensations, hipsters, and… I don’t know, just about everything else Millennials are sick to death of either talking about or being talked about in relationship to. The humanity of the story goes out the window in exchange for trying to be timely, and while I GUESS some of it is accurate to certain aspects of the cultural zeitgeist, it’s only accurate in the broadest and toothless way; like a Contra Points knock off from a studio hack. It also doesn’t help that for the entire second act Herschel and Ben barely interact with each other and in doing so Ben becomes kind of a scumbag character. Lost is genial awkwardness to be replaced by bitterness and spite in a way that only further undercuts whatever message the movie is trying to get across. His tactics to weaponize modern culture against is great grandfather in turn makes any genuine conversation ABOUT cultural changes from generation to generation come off as woefully cynical as well, so by the time we’re at a subplot about twitter mobs of all things, there’s just nothing left of the heart that won me over so early in this movie. It gets a LITTLE bit better in the third act where Herschel and Ben are forced to come back together and we can resume building their relationship, but the journey to get there is fraught with pointless asides, cynical finger-wagging, and by far THE WORST trial I’ve ever seen in a movie, that there’s just not much left to feel about the movie to carry us over its sentimental conclusion.
That said, perhaps I’m in the wrong here for wanting sentimentality over cynicism. Perhaps confirming the flaws of Hershel’s character, his racism, sexism, and every other-sim being a cis white man form the turn of the century, is more important to establish than creating a person who would not feasibly exist. See, MY version of this movie would perhaps look more like Kate & Leopold where Herschel is FLAWED but not in ways that belie the ignorance and hatred from his time; a man who sees his great-grandchild suffering and does what he can to make things right. Is that rife with problematic elements? Sure, I mean even if Herschel was the wokest of woke dudes, you could easily fall into some YOUNG KIDS TODAY DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY HAVE tropes by having him play the Mystical Magical Relative swooping down to fix his problems like a very gruff Mary Poppins. Even with that though, I still think that whatever “honesty” the movie we actually DID get purports to have is exaggerated and cynically deployed rather than genuinely insightful. That’s what it really comes down to; in order to make this more of a comedy they injected a lot of cynicism into it, which I guess is going to work for some people but I found myself wishing for a movie more about fixing people’s problems than laughing at their faults.
Some movies I’ve seen since the world went on lockdown have been disappointing, but perhaps none more so than this. This movie didn’t just sucker me in with a good trailer or with hype built around it (*cough* Da 5 Bloods *cough*), it did so by delivering a wonderful movie for the first thirty minutes and then driving off a cliff for the last hour. I REALLY want to see the movie that it felt like we were going to get for the first act of this, but trying to set those feelings aside and look at the movie we have; I’m still finding it sorely lacking. Nothing outside of Ben and Herschel feels real or fully developed, so when the film opens up to include a lot more characters, a lot more tangents, and a lot of half-baked ideas about modern culture, it’s just not engaging enough for me to recommend. I’d say check out the first third of this if you have HBO Max because those thirty minutes were some of the best I’ve had watching a movie since the theaters closed down, but if you’re like me and just feel yourself getting deflated as soon as Herschel and Ben are apart, just switch to something better. It’s not like any of us are short on options these days!