From the guy who brought you that movie about organised religion via the medium of foul-mouthed groceries comes an understated, oddly dignified tale of what it means to be a Jewish immigrant in America. More specifically, an early-20th Century Jewish immigrant preserved in brine for 100 years before being released on modern-day Brooklyn.
Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is a man who is used to picking up and carrying on. Life in Schlupsk, Eastern Europe, is not easy. The work is dirty, the weather is dreary, and occasionally Cossacks ride in and burn down your village. So he and wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) move to the United States to pursue their dream of one day having a burial plot.
Instead, after an accident at the pickle factory, Herschel ends up entombed in a vat as the world moves on around him – think the time-lapse from Gangs of New York played for light comedy, rather than elegy.
After an accident with a drone (sigh, yes, how topical), Herschel erupts from his unlikely cryo-sleep like a salty Jason Voorhees. An American Pickle has the makings of a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, but the film takes a different path. Instead what we get is a study of contrasts between Herschel and his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen), who still lives in Brooklyn and is happy to help his ancestor acclimatise to the new era.
Rogen is a deceptively ambitious actor-filmmaker, not least here in pulling double duty as both the cheery, open-faced Ben and the bearded, brawling Herschel. From the crass, post-apocalyptic shenanigans of This Is The End to that one that nearly provoked World War III to the underrated gem that was last year’s Long Shot1, he’s never been afraid to tackle topics on a grand scale, which here seems to be no less than the American dream.
Adapted by Simon Rich from his serialised story for The New Yorker, the film suggests that impetuous Herschel, with his grit and determination and sheer bloodymindedness might, in fact, be better equipped for the world at large than Ben, a nebbish app developer.
The film would seem to disagree, too, with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement that, “There are no second acts in American lives”, as Herschel goes from local celebrity to an unwitting figure of national controversy – think Being There if Chance had outspoken opinions on woman’s rights and polio. However, the point of this remained, to me, a bit unclear: people with retrograde views can become a success and indeed continue to play a key role in society, despite of or perhaps because of this.
An American Pickle‘s climax, though, can’t quite reconcile this broad commentary with the unattended relationship that should be at the film’s heart: that of the proud immigrant and his ineffectual descendent. Instead, having initially skated past the absurdity of its premise, it leans hard on contrivance. This is all to orchestrate a more intimate denouement; a reconciliation based on faith and shared loss, that relies on the emotional subtlety of twin performances from Rogen.
Director Brandon Trost, a longterm collaborator with Rogen, manages to balance the new and the old, complimented by John Guleserian’s cinematography – the film’s Eastern European prologue plays out in the muted colours of turn-of-the-century photographs before embracing a more vibrant palette – and Nami Melumad’s klezmer-style score.
Ben and Herschel should be the twin chambers of the heart driving the story, but instead they’re bifurcated, kept apart and at odds, and so An American Pickle feels more like an admirable curio, full of interesting ideas, than an unmitigated success that brings them all together.