'An American Pickle': Seth Rogen in a Soulful Time-Travel Comedy

By Kurt Loder

August 7, 2020 6 min read

The new Seth Rogen movie is a time-travel story of the "Rip Van Winkle" variety. It's set in 1919 Brooklyn, where an immigrant named Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) falls into a vat full of brining pickles and wakes up a hundred years later surrounded by social media, Williamsburg hipsters and a thicket of digital doohickeys. Cue the fish-out-of-water gags.

But "An American Pickle" has more in mind than genre box-checking. The picture is funny, in a gentle way, but it also has earnest things to say about family and forgiveness. It's touching but not gloopy. And it allows its star to repurpose the warm comic persona he's employed over the years in raunchier films to less-raucous effect here.

Herschel reveres his adopted America, and we understand why in an opening flashback to his early life as a ditch-digger in the dilapidated East European village of Schlupsk. There we see him meeting a young woman named Sarah (Sarah Snook), with whom he has much in common. ("Her parents murdered by Cossacks, my parents murdered by Cossacks.") She's perfect. ("She has all her teeth.")

Herschel and Sarah marry, relocate to America and have a son. Herschel gets a job as a rat stomper in a pickle factory but then takes that tumble into the brining vat. When he wakes up in the present day, he's hailed as a medical miracle, although he's not too happy about it. "The world has changed," he says. "Everything I know is gone." Sarah and his son are long dead, of course, and Herschel's only living relative turns out to be a tech schlub named Ben Greenbaum (Rogen again), a "freelance mobile app developer" who's been working on a gizmo that will determine the ethical profile of any company with which a politically correct purchaser might wish to do business. Ben has been working on this niche item for five years but has only just gotten a first nibble of financing interest.

Herschel is baffled by Ben. He has no interest in family (he doesn't seem to care that his parents have died) or in the religion of his forebears (Ben had "a Jewmanji-themed" bar mitzvah). And when Herschel pressures him into visiting his parents' graves, Ben has to admit he knows nothing about Kaddish. At the cemetery, Herschel becomes enraged when he sees that a towering billboard is being constructed that will overshadow the Greenbaums' gravesite — a billboard advertising Russian vodka (Cossacks again!). A confrontation with the construction workers turns violent, and Ben and Herschel wind up in jail. This destroys Ben's dream for his ethical-info app, but Herschel is jazzed. Determined to buy and destroy the offensive vodka billboard, he announces to Ben that he will create a "pickle empire."

The means by which he goes about doing this are pretty funny. First, he scavenges discarded cucumbers from a dumpster behind a local restaurant. The resulting "artisanal pickles" that he begins selling from a wobbly cart are an instant hit among foodies. A Herschel pickle has an unusually strong aroma ("I can smell it in my eyes," says one connoisseur) but also inspirational qualities. ("It would go so well with the kelp ceviche.") An internet video post brings Herschel's burgeoning business to the attention of the resentful Ben, who deviously recommends that his irritating ancestor get involved with Twitter, pitching it as a useful forum for reaching reasonable people. With his century-old social sensibilities, Herschel is soon sending out unwittingly racist and sexist tweets. In no time, a TV news show is asking: "Who is Herschel Greenbaum, and what is he selling? Is it pickles ... or is it hate?" This brings him to the approving attention of a right-wing TV host. Inevitably, one Herschel supporter asks if he has considered running for office.

This survey of the current sociopolitical scene hits all its targets (Herschel's rogue appeal draws the support of Kanye West!), but it's not overdone. Director Brandon Trost, a cinematographer making his first solo feature, maintains unswerving control of the movie's deliberate pace and sells the potentially gimmicky double-Rogen scenes mainly with simple over-the-shoulder camera setups. The picture seeks to demonstrate the weightless transience of intellectual fashions and the primal importance of timeless spiritual values. Doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, but it delivers more than a few.

("An American Pickle" is airing now on HBO Max.)

 Photo credit HBO Max.
Photo credit HBO Max.
 Photo credit HBO Max.
Photo credit HBO Max.

Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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