An American Pickle is now streaming on HBO Max.
By Palmer Rubin
A Charlie Kaufman movie that very badly doesn’t want to be a Charlie Kaufman movie. A film about the Jewish immigrant experience that both wants to be a treatise on the complicated position the background holds in modern American society while also trying to shoe-horn in every already outdated point it can make on “cancel culture.” This all is far too much for An American Pickle to hold onto. Like pickles with too much brine, it wants to be both a studio comedy and a surrealist nightmare – but ends up being neither. That doesn’t mean there aren’t genuinely clever moments and scenes that suggest a better movie within. The biggest shame of all is Seth Rogen only being able to do half of his two parts well: he’s a much better displaced pickle salesman than hipster. If only he could move away from his patented stoner bro persona, he’d be a force to be reckoned with.
Herschel Greenbaum is a ditch digger in the fictional shtetl of Schlupsk, who yearns for the American Dream, marries his sweetheart, and gets trapped in a giant vat of pickle brine for a century. He’s discovered by some Brooklynite kids, discovers his only remaining descendent, and all hell goes loose.
After finishing the film, I felt so conflicted about all of it that I went off and found the film’s source material, a four-part novella in the New Yorker called “Sell Out,” by Simon Rich. He’s also the film’s screenwriter. It’s the usual white Ashkenazi self-loathing that that section of Judaism has become infamous for. In the novella, Herschel is Simon Rich’s actual great-grandparent, and he spends copious amounts of it describing his great-grandfather’s disgust at Simon Rich’s lifestyle, at his lack of hygiene, copious descriptions of white Ashkenazi features. This sort of self-loathing, made famous by Woody Allen, feels incredibly old hat, but it also explains why Seth Rogen would become so interested in adapting it to the screen. The film is better than the novella because Rogen replaces the self-loathing with confusion and a comedy of manners, but a lot of the novella’s worst qualities hold the film down on a scale as heavy as a vat of half-sours. It gets murky, and it’s a shame because the film has a first and third act just effective enough that it almost makes up for an utter travesty of a second act, where the majority of weak political satire bursts out like a wet fart.
The first twenty or so minutes of the film have very deservedly been commended for how much more visually gorgeous and distinctive it is than the rest of the film. Director Brandon Trost (a cinematographer on many of Rogen’s past films turned director) frames the entire thing in Academy ratio and stylizes it like a photograph from the era, it’s absolutely gorgeous to behold. It’s like a mix of The Lighthouse, the prologue to There Will Be Blood, with a hint of late-period Terence Malick for good measure, complete with a Fiddler On The Roof aesthetic. One would only wish that style had remained in some way even after Herschel reaches the present and the film shifts to basic coverage and overly desaturated color grading. There’s a lot that works beyond that. Herschel as a character shouldn’t be as affecting as he is, considering Rogen basically plays him in the vein of a slightly more restrained version of Borat. You spend every waking moment waiting for him to yell out “my wife!” or “great success!” or any of the aphorisms that entered pop culture in the mid-2000s. All of the cleverness is undercut by a series of half-baked ideas that don’t mesh together well, from a Prince And The Pauper-style identity switch to already-dated jokes about Silicon Valley and lots of gags about Herschel’s fascination with modern technology that has been done in a million other movies. For every gag that works, there’s ten that feels like it came from a movie that came out ten years ago.
The bits that work are pretty great though. This is the first time in Rogen’s career that I can recall him not falling into minutes at a time of Judd Apatow-style improv regardless of context, and with a proper script, Rogen actually has a credible sense of comedic timing after all. It also needs to be stressed that Herschel could have easily been a massive half-assed effort like Adam Sandler’s Zohan or the Hebrew Hammer or weaksauce attempts for white Jews to make blaxsploitation films, and Rogen doesn’t fall into that particular trap. Even if the accent isn’t necessarily accurate, he’s taking Herschel completely seriously even when he’s doing ridiculous things. A scene where Herschel confuses construction workers for Cossacks and beats them senseless works because Rogen, for the first time, understands the rule of comedy is to say ridiculous things completely seriously. He hits that Leslie Nielsen sweet spot at times. The film’s cleverest running gag is in the ways it intercuts between Ben Greenbaum (the great-grandson) and his failures as an app developer versus Herschel as a pickle salesman. Ben continually fails because he’s not unethical enough of a person to succeed in app development, whereas Herschel eagerly discovers internships and recruits a bunch of Ivy League students to help him make his pickles for him without having to pay them. Herschel eagerly screws over anyone and everyone to make his “fortune” (a couple thousand dollars, great success!). It’s a clever inversion of the typical rags-to-riches montage, using Herschel’s lack of understanding about how inflation works as the punchline. I wish it didn’t devolve so fast into one arbitrarily trying to ruin the other one’s life after less than a day knowing each other, because I would have preferred the conflict to be more internal between them. A whole film of just Herschel adjusting to modern gentrified Brooklyn and Ben not understanding anything about his own background would’ve been a far funnier movie. It’s a shame to see these scenes interspersed with the bits that don’t work, a film that badly wants to be topical while its bits that work are those with the simplest punchlines.
Ultimately, you can understand why Rogen wanted to make a film out of this, as the third act finally abandons the gross-out comedy and weak-sauce attempts at satire to become about two Jewish men and their disconnect from their background. There’s a really sweet scene that openly reaffirms how in spite of Herschel’s devout faith and Ben’s more secular path in life, both of them are equally considered as Jewish. For all of the spite and the cruelty that can make this feel badly aged, the genuinely kind and empathetic moments this film is often capable of reveals how much better this film would have been if it had been made by a Charlie Kaufman, someone able to do more with the surrealist nature of the material than brief sight gags but still possessing spot-on comedic instincts. If not for the truly fantastic opening sequence and the individual scenes where everything clicks into place, this film would be a total gherkin.
I wish the rest of the movie did stuff like this. I wish Rogen was more willing to embrace the pathos. There’s an A+ movie hiding inside all of the bloat and pointless subplots. I guess we’ll have to wait for the remake.
I give An American Pickle a C+.