“This is what we’re reaching for everybody. This is the dream. This is the goal. Perfect jar of pickles.”
Head to HBO Max to find Seth Rogen in a solid dual role in the historical comedy An American Pickle. Director Brandon Trost makes his feature debut and screenwriter Simon Rich adapts his 2013 short story Sell Out. Rogen stars as Herschel Greenbaum, an Ashkenazi Jew from Eastern Europe in the 1920s who awakes in modern-day New York City, and Ben Greenbaum, his great-grandson and only surviving family member in modern times.
Australian actress Sarah Snook also portrays Herschel’s wife Sarah while comedic filmmaker/actor Jorma Taccone portrays Liam (in modern NYC). Both blend naturally into the film as the filmmakers also elevate this endearing experience thanks to past collaboration.
Trost has already collaborated with Rogen on several films, especially as a cinematographer. He demonstrates great talent here especially in Rogen’s dual role shots and a constructed time-lapsed shot of a pickle factory.
The early 20th-century film title screens begin the film as the crew immediately hits the audience with a great wave of nostalgic sounds to establish the 1919 timeline as About Time cinematographer John Guleserian incorporates more authenticity …even showing some shots where the outside edge of the frame as out-of-focus due to the film lenses used at that time.
This 90-minute gem keeps moving while focusing on the relationship between Herschel and Ben, a freelance mobile app developer. The main concept is explained in a hilarious, short way and Herschel’s predictable “culture shock” adjustments get some memorable laughs and are not overplayed. “What a beautifully inappropriate thing to say,” Ben says to Herschel who’s still reeling a bit from Herschel describing him as a young “shapely young woman” when they glanced through Ben’s childhood pictures in the family photo album.
Inappropriate doesn’t always mean offensive, but audiences get Frost’s plot eventually turns political, but takes a natural progression; it’s the logistics that sour this worthwhile film, but only a little.
Besides the 100-year survival then awaking in modern times, Herschel suddenly speaks English (maybe assume Ben’s influence here) and a billboard demolition lands right on the very elements that Herschel is trying to preserve for the Greenbaum family. Most importantly, the audience never gets a real sense that Ben knows Herschel beyond a general sense, which progressively factors into the plot in important ways. Also, Herschel could continue the family line on his own …”from the back line” so to speak instead of relying on Ben to further the Greenbaum family.
The main antagonists here are the Cossacks who forced Herschel and Sarah to move to America in the first place. The satire and dark comedy harvested from this challenge (e.g. how U.S. immigration officials were at least nicer than the Cossacks) and more are very functional and don’t overwhelm the film.
The blended Ben and Herschel sequences are priceless. The best example is when Ben asks Herschel what he wants to know about a product before he buys it. Herschel’s response is so practical yet matches with Ben’s research for his Boop Bop app. As Ben offers Herschel some refreshment, he riffs on modern milk products. “You name it they’re milking it,” Bens says as this sequence also foreshadows a later sequence.
The two bond as Herschel does not want to be a burden on Ben and marvels at Ben’s modern conveniences like the number of clothes Ben owns. Herschel tries to bond in more traditional ways, but Ben is reluctant to describe personal tragedy and “bond over pain.”
Herschel assimilates in modern NYC very quickly and asserts himself in inventive and resourceful ways. Filmmakers use an identifying sound technique when Herschel passionately and stubbornly latches onto an idea while other characters’ dialogue fades away. Doesn’t ask for feedback or question what he’s doing, but not in an arrogant way where he thinks he knows more than the modern world. He freely admits when he needs help as his natural charm and magnetic persona attracts other people to him.
Overall, Ben and Herschel’s motivations and resulting actions are too simplified in this satire basically boiling down to one dimension – how these men prove their worth to others. There aren’t many other options or factors worked in, which creates positives like a short running time and other efficiencies, but creates a less natural progression in the film’s second half.
The musical talents of composer Nami Melumad and Michael Giacchino provide great enhancements. This music greatly enhances Herschel’s first “culture shock” moment with a whimsical movement as he and Ben first hit the streets then hail a cab to go to Ben’s apartment. Melumad takes on most of this sonic workload with Giacchino providing music themes backed by eclectic songs from The Gillettes, Marmalade, Mirror People, Kev Moses, and Maurice Williams.
Filmmakers ace the set/production design, led by William Arnold (L.A. Confidential), beginning with the 1919 timeline, which adds a charming authenticity that bolsters the character development, plot, and emotional impact. Recommended (*** out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for some language, fighting, and rude humor. An American Pickle is a great chance to experience Seth Rogen’s talents. For audiences concerned about the content, this film is the first he’s produced that wasn’t rated R so wade in this pickle vat, you’ll enjoy yourself.