In Praise of “An American Pickle”

Holocaust Remembrance Day seems an appropriate, if vaguely irreverent time to plug An American Pickle (2020), Seth Rogen’s low-key, high concept, double-Jewish-identity comedy.

I suppose there may be people who hate Rogen but I am not one of them. I find him eminently loveable, and manifestly relatable. He is the Doris Day (girl next door) of chubby, pot-smoking Jewish guys. Everyone from a city, the suburbs, or the East Coast either went to high school or college with a version of him — or WAS him. On the other hand, he’s also Canadian, which means that his high comfortability register translates into a certain lack of manic spark, that thing we Americans possess which compels us to take everything into hyperdrive/ supersize/ XXL/ 4-D sensurround/ three ring circus. Hence, despite the fact that in certain ways, An American Pickle may be Rogen’s most ambitious and sophisticated vehicle (haha, admittedly a low bar), it falls short of being the Grand Slam it might be given the Can’t Lose Concept. I find that I am in accord with the general feeling that it rates a B+ or so for execution, despite my being over the moon with enthusiasm for the premise.

Written by the humorist Simon Rich (critic Frank Rich’s son), and based on his 2017 short story “Sell Out”, it’s the story of a Tevye-esque immigrant from Eastern Europe who works catching rats in a Williamsburg (Brooklyn) pickle factory in 1919. One day he falls into a vat and is accidentally sealed up. As can only happen in comedies, he is preserved by the pickle juice, discovered a century later, miraculously revived, and connected with his great-grandson, a ne’er-do-well trying to get an app off the ground in the hipster Williamsburg of today. Both parts are naturally played by Rogen, doing some of the best acting I’ve seen him do. The doubling gimmick has a rich classic comedy tradition and many of the greats did it at some point: Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, etc. This one adds a sort of reversal of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or a Yiddish Rip Van Winkle — man from the past walks among the wonders of the present. And among the film’s pleasures is Rogen’s shading of the two characters, which each comment upon their times in subtle, eloquent ways. Though both the same age, Herschel, the grandfather, seems older, more solid and wise, even though he is a peasant and a wide-eyed naif. Ben, the contemporary descendent, though pushing 40, is infantalized and still hasn’t found his way in the world.

Another of the joys of An American Pickle is that it manages to avoid the buddy movie formula you are expecting, that arc of “You irritate me and cramp my style, New Person I’m Stuck With! But perhaps I will learn and grow over the next 90 minutes as we solve some challenges together!” Instead, Ben proves to be petty, jealous and vindictive, becoming Herschel’s arch enemy and nemesis! This makes for some wonderfully fresh and refreshingly truthful comedy. Basically, Herschel becomes magically successful with a hipster pickle business, infuriating Ben, who can’t get his own entrepreneurial dreams off the ground. For a while, there’s a bit of a Roadrunner-and-Coyote relationship going. I think this element could have been taken much farther for maximum hilarity. It stops short of going all the way.

The film was directed by Brandon Trost, normally a cinematographer, who had previously worked with Rogen on such things as his Kim Jong-un comedy The Interview. Predictably, it looks great, both in the early 1919 scenes, and in the later ones, where the doubling illusion is carried off without a hitch.

I am not one of those $$$ obsessed movie industry people, but I do want to put this out there. This worthwhile movie cost $20 million to produce, and due to the pandemic has only made a half million back. It was released online months ago and I only became aware of it last week, in spite of the fact that, as the Cockneys say, it is right up my street. My point being not that too much was spent on this movie; it all shows up on the screen. But this is more to say that it would be a shame if that amount were to go to waste on something that didn’t get seen. You have my recommendation.