An American Pickle

Seth Rogen as Ben and Herschel

 

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.

 

Seth Rogen as Herschel
King of New York!

 

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

 

The Interview

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview

Like an Inspector Clouseau party that’s forgotten to invite Peter Sellers, The Interview has a gigantic gaping hole where the comedy should be. Unsure if it’s a satire on modern entertainment or a Get Smart-style caper comedy set in the People’s Republic of North Korea, it squats uneasily between the two, leaving its game bromantic stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, mouthing like beached fish in one unfunny set-up after another.

The film arrives after the most brilliantly organised bit of internet brouhaha since The Blair Witch Project. First, Sony’s servers were hacked by the North Koreans, angry at the prospect of a film about an assassination attempt on the Dear Leader. The film was shelved by Sony, after it found distributors taking seriously the threats of cyber armageddon against them. Then President Obama got involved, criticising Sony for being chicken and invoking the Constitutional right for cinema chains to refuse to show a film if they so desired. No, hang on, I think I might have that wrong. Then there was a counter cyber-attack against the North Koreans which, if it was ordered by Obama, must be a rare example of the US going to war to protect a Japanese company’s interests. Then Sony called in favours to cobble together a limited release. Then the film made a day/date online/theatrical debut, a rare example of the cinema chains feeding the hand that bites them.

You could not orchestrate a better advertising campaign. If only it had been lavished on a better film. Because The Interview really really stinks. It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and repeats the mistakes they made in two earlier films. The Green Hornet was another tin-eared piece of writing which, like an over-caffeinated breakfast radio DJ, mistook a “comedy” tone of voice for humour. And with This Is the End an initially funny film was run into the ground by Rogen and Goldberg’s dry-humping of the material. And to think these two wrote Superbad.

The plot is scant – airhead TV interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco) and his ambitious producer (Rogen) head to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, having been co-opted by the CIA (in the shape of Lizzy Caplan) into assassinating him while there. The “entertainment guys as stealth operatives” structure resembles Argo, and the film would have been a whole lot funnier played a whole lot straighter. Missing its open shots at the wide open goal that is entertainment TV – watching Eminem on the Dave Skylark show admit that, yes, he really is gay, might have raised a titter ten years ago – it then proceeds to take such weak pops at totalitarianism that in comparison Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

To Kim Jong-un, a man responsible for the death of how many hundreds of thousands of people, and whose vainglory is another open goal, entirely missed. He speaks in “fuck yeah we can” argot, admits to a liking for Katy Perry and margaritas, even though they’re a bit sissy, in scenes where he bonds with Dave Skylark and they drive a tank about shooting at stuff.

It’s screwball comedy as written by the CIA, taking its propaganda cues from the “Hitler has only got one ball” ditty. However, none of this would matter if the interview itself, between Dumb and Kim Jong-Dumber, delivered the goods. It is, however, spectacularly inept. First it does that Hollywood thing where the “hero” has a sudden moment of clarity and does the right thing, Dave here suddenly veering off the script and pitching hardball questions at Kim, who counters with the observation that the US has more people incarcerated per capita than North Korea does. This is a blast so unexpected – because it actually connects with a fact out in the real world – that you want to applaud. Until you remember that this is a film about a totalitarian dictator that has managed to land not one single punch.



The Interview – Buy it/watch it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2014