an american pickle review

For all its occasional bursts of fleeting beauty, the world is an inherently lonely place. And even those who prefer to remain loners can, on occasion, seek out the warmth of connection, however brief or fleeting. That search for connection is hidden within An American Pickle, a sweet, silly movie that never quite decides what it wants to be, but not for lack of trying. Once you move beyond the goofy premise – which involves a man brined in a pickle vat for 100 years – you find a film filled with characters who seek that connection; that spark. Characters who need one another, whether they like it or not.

In the 1920s, immigrant Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) and his bride Sarah (Sarah Snook, in little more than an extended cameo), have come to America in search of the American dream. Herschel lands himself a job at a pickle factory, although he’s not trusted to make the pickles. Instead, he’s tasked with running around the decrepit building chasing rats with a club. As bad luck – or is it fate? – would have it, Herschel falls into a huge pickle vat just as the factory has been condemned.

Cut to 100 years later, and Herschel is accidentally revived, escaping from his vat like something from a folk tale. If you think this is ridiculous, don’t worry – the movie does, too. One of the funniest jokes in An American Pickle arises from the way the script quickly hurries past how medically impossible it would be to be brined for 100 years only to wake up perfectly healthy and un-aged. There are several other laugh-out-loud moments that play-up how absurd the events of the film are and they are bound to make a big impression

Now, stuck in a world he doesn’t know, Herschel is reunited with his last surviving relative, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen). Ben, a Brooklynite working on his own social media app, is the complete opposite of Herschel. He takes for granted all the things that Herschel thinks of as truly special – for instance, one of Herschel’s dreams of his era was to be able to afford a glass of seltzer water, whereas Ben has a seltzer-maker in his roomy apartment.

The two Greenbaums seem to hit it off extremely well upon their introduction, but things sour fast. Herschel doesn’t understand Ben’s ways and is appalled that Ben has seemingly abandoned his family legacy – the graveyard where Ben’s parents, and Herschel’s wife, are buried, has been neglected to the point of ruin. And Ben has an equally hard time adapting to Herschel’s very-dated – and often offensive – mentality. And so, what starts as a family reunion quickly turns into a bit of family rivalry, with Herschel striking out on his own to launch an artisanal pickle business while Ben struggles to make his nascent app a success while fuming at Herschel.

An American Pickle was penned by Simon Rich, adapting his own short story to the screen. And more often than not, the source material’s short story trappings threaten to throw the entire movie off track. Because beyond the fun magical realism set-up, the American Pickle storyline is bogged down with repetitiveness, with one scene after another of Ben trying to derail Herschel’s success, only for Herschel to immediately bounce-back. Eventually, this gives way to a somewhat amusing storyline where Herschel’s dated – and often racist – outlook turns him into a right-wing celebrity, praised for not censoring himself. But this storyline evaporates almost as soon as it’s introduced, an occurrence that’s sadly all-too-prevalent throughout the course of the film.

Director Brandon Trost is able to get stylish in the early section of the film, showing Herschel in his era, with everything shot in black & white and in Academy ratio, made to resemble an old film. This clashes with the rather flat look of the modern-day scenes, and while one could argue that Trost was deliberately making the present lack the character of the past, it doesn’t make the imagery any less lusterless.

And yet, for all its problems, An American Pickle gets by on the strength (or make that strengths) of Rogen’s performance. Playing the very different Greenbaum men allows Rogen ample opportunity to flex his acting chops, and he runs with it. While Ben is the type of modern-day schlub he’s played more than once before, the Herschel part is something different for Rogen, and it’s a testament to the actor’s skills that he manages to make the oft-offensive figure endearing.

There’s an undeniable and lovely sweetness at play in this film; a type of warmth and acceptance that helps elevate the entire package. For all his bluster and modern-day trappings, Ben is a lonely guy. And Herschel, who has lost everything and everyone he knows, is equally lonely. Despite their blood relation, these two guys couldn’t be more dissimilar, and yet, they need each other. The relationship between Herschel and Ben is really what makes An American Pickle sing, which also explains why the film can be so frustrating – it’s clear from the get-go that these two guys need each other, but it takes them a very long time to realize that. It’s one thing to delay the inevitable for narrative purposes. It’s another to keep delaying it because the story itself is lacking in material.

Too ungainly and unfocused for its own wellbeing, An American Pickle ultimately succeeds because it understands the finer things in life. Not wild success or fancy material goods, but rather the joys of connecting with someone who was previously a stranger; the warmth of accepting and moving on from the things in our lives that have hurt us; and the simple pleasure of a nice, fizzy glass of seltzer water. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer and critic for /Film, and the host of the 21st Century Spielberg podcast. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net