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‘An American Pickle’ a pretty big dill

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The American immigrant experience has been a subject of some truly great art over the years. Incredible books and films have spring from the exploration of what it means for people to come to this country in pursuit of a better life, as well as what happens in the course of that pursuit.

But to my knowledge, none have ever told that story through the lens of accidental pickle preservation. Until now.

“An American Pickle,” currently streaming on HBO Max, is a comedy that brings the early 20th century immigrant experience into the present day … by dropping someone into a pickle barrel for a hundred years. Yes, it’s as absurd as it sounds, broad and weird and a lot of fun.

Starring Seth Rogen as both a turn-of-the-century immigrant and a modern-day Brooklyn app developer, the film mines big laughs out of its bizarre premise (though it perhaps doesn’t dig as it deep as it could). It’s a twist on the classic fish out of water trope, giving us a look at our current world through the eyes of the past.

In the early part of the 20th century, Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) is a hardworking ditch digger in eastern Europe. He is poor, but still manages to find happiness when he meets Sarah (Sarah Snook, TV’s “Succession”). The two share a dream of a better life, even after a Cossack attack at their wedding leaves their village in shambles.

They make their way to America in 1919. They live in New York City, with Herschel getting a job killing rats in a pickle factory. He and Sarah are still poor, but they’re together. That is, until an unlikely confluence of events results in Herschel falling into a pickle barrel and remaining there for a century.

In the present day, the barrel is finally opened again – and Herschel is somehow still alive. He is perfectly preserved and hasn’t aged a day because of … science? There’s actually a clever bit in which Herschel’s narration covers the scientific explanation that is apparently satisfactory to everyone. It turns out that Herschel has just one remaining relative.

Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen) is an app developer living in Brooklyn. He has spent the last five years trying to launch an app that he believes will bring him great success. Ben takes Herschel in, but it isn’t long before some conflicts start to arise between the young man and his old-world great-grandfather – fundamental misunderstandings that lead in some unfortunate directions.

But as Herschel fights to understand his great-grandson and the world in which he now lives – a world that alternately celebrates and reviles him – things just keep getting more complicated as he continues to grapple with what he has lost. And Ben must come to terms with his heritage and find a way to build bridges with the only family he has.

“An American Pickle” is … odd, a movie that kind of hits a couple of marks, but lands just wide. It’s kind of an odd couple bro-comedy of the sort we’ve seen before from Rogen. And it’s kind of a comedic juxtaposition of old belief systems versus new ones. It tries to be both things but isn’t quite either. That’s not a condemnation of the film – it’s actually a really good time – but an acknowledgement that its reach ever-so-slightly exceeds its grasp.

Again, there’s plenty to like here. Showing us the world of today through Herschel’s eyes allows for some really fun observations; there’s a degree of exaggeration, but it only serves to accentuate just how displaced our hero is. Reflections of current society – social media, hipster capitalism, cancel culture – all get skewed thanks to the presence of a pickle-loving anachronism driven by love of family and hatred of Cossacks.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t sold on Rogen being able to pull this off. There’s such a specificity to his screen presence that would seem to make it tough for him to play separate and distinct characters. Would he be able to Parent Trap it? Could he give us the full Winklevoss? Especially in a movie that is essentially a two-hander with one guy?

Turns out that the answer is yes.

Rogen proves capable of carrying the movie more or less on his own, though he does get help from himself. That said, Herschel is certainly the more interesting character, with his cartoonish accent and wildly offensive words and deeds. There’s a broadness to him that is so ridiculous that it approaches the sublime – I’ll admit to laughing every time he threatened to “do a violence,” just as an example. Ben, on the other hand, is basically just a toned-down version of the schlubby and sarcastic dude Rogen usually plays, albeit with a bit more of a passive aggressive mean streak than we usually see. Still, he finds ways to delineate the two; it’s surprisingly easy to forget that it’s the same dude twice (thanks in no small part to some low-key excellent costume, hair and makeup work).

The rest of the cast is fine. Snook is very good in limited action, while a couple of familiar faces flash across the screen at times. It’s a perfectly effective ensemble. Still, there’s no denying that this is very much the Seth Rogen show – and that’s a good thing.

“An American Pickle” might not fully exploit the potential of its premise, but it finds more than enough to make for an entertaining movie, thanks to that intriguing premise and some surprisingly strong work from Seth Rogen, Personally, this sort of high-concept weirdness is something I’d like to see more often. You don’t often hope for a film to strike a sour note, but in this case, that sourness is a pretty big dill.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 07 August 2020 11:58

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