Film Critic Harlan Jacobson: "An American Pickle"

Aug 14, 2020

Seth Rogen stars in the comedy "An American Pickle"
Credit Harlan Jacobson

An American Pickle is a Seth Rogen summer comedy, written by ex-SNL writer Simon Rich from his New Yorker story, Sell Out, in 2013. Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, takes a dive with Rogen into the brine.

HJ: It is Schlupsk, Northern Poland, 1919. Look it up--it exists. Herschel Greenbaum is digging a ditch. His life is not so great. When he sees Sarah, a girl who is probably too good for him, he woos her with a smoked fish. A brief role for Succession’s Sarah Snook, Polish Sarah smiles and bites the fish’s head off.

They confess their dreams, she to have a headstone on her grave, he once in his life to taste seltzer water. They get married, the Cossacks attack, they take the boat to America, Herschel gets a job killing rats in a pickle factory. The rats are resilient and chase him off a plank into a vat of pickles where he’s sealed for 100 years in a condemned building until a kid’s errant drone knocks the lid off. That’s when Herschel wakes up in 2019, Brooklyn, the first perfectly pickled preserved man. It is debut-directed by Brandon Trost, previously a cinematographer on the both very good The Disaster Artist three years ago and Can You Ever Forgive Me in 2018. Here Trost directs more breezily in the setup I just described than over the faltering arc of the family dynamic story it becomes.

If Herschel sounds like a good vehicle for Seth Rogen to dust off some shtetl shmatas and keppe and play a character that has gone rogue from Mel Brooks, it is. He also plays opposite himself onscreen in the role of his own great grandson, Ben Greenbaum, a Brooklyn 20-something five years into an app he’s developing, Boop Bop, that promises to rate a product for its ethics on the spot. Boop Bop he hopes will bring cancel culture to the point of sale. As Herschel, Rogen has a Russian accent with some Yiddish thrown in; as Ben, Rogen speaks in a snowflake grows in Brooklyn English. Some of what follows is Rumpelstiltskin --Ben puts Herschel on the back of his Moped and wows him with 21st Century NY: skyscrapers, lights. Herschel’s eyes bug out on their walk. David Bowie posters. Androgyny. An interracial couple? “Yeah that’s totally ok now,” Ben reassures Herschel, “in certain parts of the country.” 

"An American Pickle" is a Seth Rogen comedy written to Simon Rich
Credit Harlan Jacobson

Some of An American Pickle turns into a Freudian Family Feud: Does Herschel tank the sale of Ben’s ethical App to a Google-like giant? He does. Does Ben pull the plug with the Health Dept on Herschel’s pickle pushcart that becomes a viral sensation? He does: those all natural pickles in rain water are rotting cukes in rat crap glass jars recycled from dumpsters. Some of the film is Rogen as Chauncey Gardener from Being There. And there is a taste of Barbra Streisand’s knockoff of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl—which Singer hated by the way--thrown in as an end-credits cookie, or rugelach. An American Pickle means to be about authenticity: the narrow old world vs the amorphous new one.

Once Ben weaponizes Twitter against great grandpa, it’s a war of one dirty fraud cancelling another. It’s a war of generations. Originally intended as a Sony theatrical comedy, An American Pickle opened on the HBO Max streaming platform. It’s fun in the setup but runs out of garlic in the second act.

Couple it with streaming The Tobacconist, a coming of age story of a young boy sent to Vienna in the 1930s, who befriends the aging Sigmund Freud, played by the late, but visibly unwell here, Bruno Ganz. Ganz as Freud in a collapsing Austria was enough for me in this film. You can find it at www.Menemshafilms.com

I leave you with this thought: America 100 years ago just came home from WWI. The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 people in a two-year period. (Just a note for the record—the Spanish Flu did not end WWII.) People were in quarantine in tenements. They fought over wearing masks. The Suffragettes took to the streets. Congress passed the Volstead Act, Prohibition, making gin something everybody had to drink from bathtubs. The Harding government collapsed into Teapot Dome, and Mrs. Harding may have poisoned her husband. No wonder the Roaring 20s roared. Stay patient. Laissez les bontemps roules – the good times will roll soon enough.