By Sarah Osman
Seth Rogen puts in double duty as an early 20th century Jewish immigrant and his modern great grandson in this comedy that starts off sweet but leaves a bitter aftertaste.
An American Pickle directed by Brandon Trost. HBO Max Original
Pickles, by nature, are a rather acquired taste. Some people love them, others detest them. For those who adore them, the ideal pickle is usually described as a mix of sweet and salty with the perfect crunch. An American Pickle, HBO Max’s latest film, is sweet, but piles on the salt.
Seth Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, a down-on-his-luck ditch digger living in a rural European country in 1919. Herschel soon falls in love with Sarah (Sarah Snook), a feisty beauty whom he woos with a piece of cooked fish. Herschel and Sarah dream of a better life; after their entire village is wiped out by Russian Cossacks, they decide to emigrate to America. Once in Brooklyn, Herschel gets a job smashing rats at a pickle factory, but is filled with dreams that the next generation of Greenbaums will succeed. However, he never gets to meet his future children because he falls into a vat of brine and is pickled for 100 years.
These opening scenes are charming. Rogen is quite strong as Herschel, perhaps invigorated that he is not taking on another of his stereotypical roles. Even though she’s not on screen for very long, Snook makes a memorable impression as Sarah. It’s easy to understand why Herschel yearns for her as the film goes on. In fact, the early scenes make the case that An American Pickle might have been smart to have focused on Herschel and Sarah setting up their life in turn-of-the-century America. It would have been a much stronger, more affecting narrative than what we get. Instead, the film goes in an entirely different direction.
100 years go by, and Herschel is discovered. Scientists marvel over how he was perfectly preserved.They send him to live with his great grandson, Ben Greenbaum, who is also played by Rogen. Herschel is amazed by the wonders of modern Brooklyn, from Ben’s seltzer machine to his spacious apartment. Again, these moments are delightful and it is heartening (in today’s divided America) to see Herschel adapt to Brooklyn and bond with his great grandson. We later learn that Ben’s parents were killed in a car accident; he has been living off of their insurance money while developing an app that discloses which companies are ethical and which are not.
At this point, the film takes a weird turn. The kind, heartwarming tone is jettisoned for an attempt at simple-minded political satire that falls flat. Ben takes Herschel to see Sarah’s grave, which is in a junk graveyard. There’s a billboard advertising Russian vodka above it – which Herschel takes to be an attack from the Cossacks. He gets into a fight with the billboard workers, assuming that they are evil Cossacks. He and Ben are both arrested. The latter then tries to pitch his ethical app, but is shot down because he has been arrested (which isn’t too ethical).
In the meantime, Herschel decides to make his own pickles and sell them so that he can buy the plot of land where his wife’s grave is and remove the billboard. Herschel is quickly worshipped by hipsters, and he ends up hiring a team of interns (who he believes are slaves) to help him run the pickle business. It’s clear that Herschel’s business is meant to mock millennials’ obsession with material goods as well as its treatment of interns, but the lampooning is heavy-handed and dull. It’s just not that interesting to watch Herschel make pickles and his interns clean up a graveyard.
Ben is furious with his great grandfather, whom he blames for the failure of his app. He decides to get revenge on Herschel. He introduces the ancient to Twitter and encourages him to go on talk shows, where Herschel reveals his very outdated opinions on women, immigrants, and the virgin birth. The tone is no longer humane; it is hard to believe that this is the same film that featured the moving love story between Herschel and Sarah. How did Herschel and Ben go from friends to enemies so quickly? Ben and Herschel’s constant fighting becomes unbelievably cruel, and the acidic bickering brings the film to a halt. That does not mean that time is suspended: though An American Pickle is only 88 minutes long, it feels like three hours go by.
An American Pickle is a film that could have gone in many directions. It could have been a pleasant historical drama about the importance of family. It could have been a look at what it meant to be Jewish — then and now. And it could have been a stinging political satire about time and people being “out of joint.” But jumbling all these ideas into one film ends up in paralysis. An American Pickle is one film that will not do in a pickle.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.