American Pickle is unsure whether it’s fighting the culture war or fighting it off – a proper pickle
It’s amusing, likeable, good-natured and I really wanted to like it, but American Pickle really is all over the place. Basics first: Seth Rogen is the East European from some Yiddish-speaking stetl who, after the Cossacks kill everyone in his village in a pogrom, heads to the US with his wife and love of his life (Sarah Snook, soon dead, before you get too excited).
There, Herschel gets a job, falls into a vat in a pickle factory, wakes up a century later, the brine having somehow magically preserved him, and heads out into modern New York where he eventually hooks up with his great great grandson Ben (also played by Rogen).
Ben is a 21st-century tech developer whose app helps people make ethical shopping choices. A what? The who? A bemused Herschel is introduced to other facets of modern life – cashew milk, kombucha, the carbon footprint, and androgynous men such as David Bowie. He doesn’t seem overly impressed with it all, preferring instead his toolkit of smalltown prejudices (women knowing their place, the importance of sticking to the Jewish faith), and in a spirit of can-do decides to start a pickle business, using waste materials sourced from the bins behind grocery stores.
From here the film settles into a groove – Herschel’s pickles are an instant hit. Looking like a modern day hipster in his century-old beard, cap and flannel shirt doesn’t hurt, and savvy, modern Ben becomes massively jealous. So he sets out to sabotage Herschel. But everything Ben does backfires and Herschel only becomes more successful, while Ben’s own career lurches from one disaster to another.
Herschel is a likeable sort (Rogen seems to like him as well). There’s the misogyny and bigotry but on the other hand he has the optimism and energy of the new immigrant – admirable qualities. Ben, too, is likeable enough. Though his lip-service to the ethical is as wearing as his smallmindedness masquerading as liberal sentiment, he’s basically a good guy who’s making bad choices because he’s panicking.
If comedy is about telling truth to power, or punching up rather than down, I have no idea which of these guys is a justifiable target for our laughter, and I don’t think writer Simon Rich does either.
And what sort of comedy Rich is aiming at is not clear either. Things start out a bit Borat, with life on the stetl being lampooned, then turn into Crocodile Dundee (innocent Herschel abroad in New York), then The Odd Couple (Ben and Herschel’s relationship) before plateau-ing at Being There (simple Herschel becoming a massive success thanks to his unvarnished take on life).
Rich’s background is as a Saturday Night Live writer and some of American Pickle’s shortcomings are down to a great idea for a sketch running out of air at feature length. Then there’s the indecision about which side of the current culture war American Pickle wants to be on.
Expectations play a role too. I expected American Pickle to be a comedy – it is written, directed, cast, acted and marketed as such – but it isn’t very funny.
But as a light-hearted examination of sensitive urban liberals and whether they could learn something from bluffer, cruder creatures from the other side of a temporal (ie political) divide, it can claim to be in territory nothing else is in at the moment (September 2020).
Perhaps I should watch it again.
© Steve Morrissey 2020