- An American Pickle
- Directed by Brandon Trost
- Written by Simon Rich
- Starring Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook and Seth Rogen
- Classification PG; 90 minutes
Seth Rogen, mazel tov! Although the comic actor has weathered a mashugana amount of controversy from certain corners of the political spectrum these past two weeks for his reasoned comments on Israel – which I won’t otherwise delve into here, as I have no desire to set my inbox on fire – the nice Jewish boy from Canada has also just made the most explicitly, lovingly Semitic film in recent memory.
While Rogen’s An American Pickle is being marketed as a high-concept fish-out-of-brine story – what happens when a pickle factory worker is accidentally preserved for a century, waking up in modern-day Brooklyn? – it is more an opportunity for the star to wrestle with tricky and profound questions of faith, tradition, culture and family. From its klezmer-loaded soundtrack to its Star of David-heavy production design to its record-breaking number of shoutouts to “Hashem,” An American Pickle bests such contemporary efforts as Uncut Gems, A Serious Man and Call Me By Your Name to become the reigning champion of the genre I’m going to dub Mitzvah Movies.
Opening in the Old Country circa 1919 – or “Schlupsk, Eastern Europe” as the title cards inform – the film finds the lonely Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) eking out a life of mud and misery as a hard-luck ditch-digger. But then one day he catches a glimpse of Sarah (Succession’s Sarah Snook) haggling for a smoked carp, and soon enough the two are off to chase the American dream. A dream that mostly involves the pair earning enough money that they can afford their very own tombstones. This new life is torn apart when Herschel falls into a vat of pickle brine and stays that way for 100 years. (The science on this is sound, one of the movie’s doctors assures us. Fine by me!)
Now, it’s 2019 and Herschel seeks out his last living relative, his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen, sans Herschel’s scruffy beard). The two bond over their shared bloodline, but it’s not long until Ben’s secular ways, his virtue-signalling job as an ethical app designer and his indifference to the bonds of family begin to grate on Herschel’s pride and sense of tradition. Now, the two face off as semi-nemeses set loose in a modern-day Brooklyn obsessed with artisanal artifice.
Adapting his own short story “Sell Out,” former Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich seems slightly confused as to which themes he wants to focus on once the film settles into its second half. The bits about Herschel’s rise and fall among the gentrified set are thinly amusing in a sketch-comedy kind of way – easy targets for anyone who still chuckles when hearing the name “Smorgasburg.” Of course, Brooklyn residents of a certain demographic will cotton on to Herschel’s preservative-free pickle business, just as they’ll be horrified by his decidedly un-woke views on absolutely everything else in 21st-century America. It’s amusing to watch, but far from the biting satire that Rich thinks his script is.
The film works better when it turns sincere, examining the tension between the old world’s definition of Judaism and what Jewish culture looks like today. While the themes will hit any moviegoer who still winces at the awkward memories of their bar or bat mitzvah particularly hard, the push and pull between expectations and autonomy, faith and identity, are universal.
Rogen, who has never much stretched his acting muscles beyond playing some facsimile of himself, grounds these questions with a genuine sense of guilt and grief. The actor also manages to make the film’s har-har dual-role conceit work beyond mere shtick. There is Herschel, and there is Ben, and Rogen plays each one of them with a decidedly unique energy. Meanwhile, director Brandon Trost, a longtime cinematographer for such Rogen films as Neighbors and The Interview, makes the mensch-on-mensch action seem as real as can be.
While Rich’s script misses a few trickier opportunities to further dig into questions of religion and history – Herschel sleeps his way through the entirety of the Second World War, yet there’s never any discussion of how the Holocaust has irrevocably changed the world he wakes up in – An American Pickle is a movie that your bubbe will love. Call her up, patiently explain how to download the Crave streaming app and have a bonding moment.
An American Pickle is available to stream on Crave starting Aug. 6
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.