Released: 17th September
Seen: 17th September
“A Jewish immigrant working in an american pickle factory falls into a vat of pickles in 1919 and is preserved for 100 years, waking up in 2019 where he is put into the care of his only living relative”
It’s a simple concept with a lot of potential, a classic fish out of water story. Ideas like this have brought us such films as Blast from the Past or even the second Captain America movie. It’s a great structure because it can really shine a light on how much people have grown over a certain period of time and can create some fun interesting ideas. An American Pickle definitely has some interesting ideas, even though it hasn’t quite figured out how to go all the way with them.
In An American Pickle, the immigrant who falls into the pickle vat is named Hershel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) and his living relative is Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen). Hershel was a ditch digger and occasional rat killer while Ben is a freelance app designer. The two of them almost instantly realise that while they have a fair amount in common, the generational gap has definitely created some differences in how they approach life. Things that Hershel finds acceptable just don’t fly in Ben’s world, and things that Ben takes for granted are things that Hershel never got to experience.
From roughly the first minute you can tell that the comedy is going to be broad and farcical, the entire sequence set in 1919 plays like an old silent film with extreme physical comedy and very big moments designed to play through the grit and grime of an olden day projector. They even frame it like an old style film, playing up this comedy style as much as possible… and then you realise “Hang on, this is framed like an old style film but the actual picture is still HD and in full colour” and that moment becomes a strange metaphor for the entire film. A big bold idea that they kinda half ass and don’t go all the way with.
The bulk of An American Pickle is about family, bonding with them through just about anything. That’s where the film keeps its heart and where it certainly gets most of the charm from (aided by a genuinely fascinating pair of performances by Rogen)… but it’s not the most interesting element of the film. Honestly, even though the film keeps coming back to family and how you have to cherish it and be there for each other and all that stuff, where the film actually gets interesting is when it plays with the differences between 1919 thinking and 2019 thinking.
One of the big elements of An American Pickle is when Hershel decides to start a pickling business and from there we witness that the hygiene levels that would’ve been fine back then are abhorrent now. It’s a slight cliché, but they then twist it by showing the people who still think the 1919 method was fine. People actually rally around this man and his old way of doing things, the spark of the interesting idea that soon explodes into something that could’ve really been something great.
This is where they ratchet things up by having Hershel’s more bigoted views come out and… yep, some people embrace a man who calls people sodomites and says to not go near a woman when menstruating, because according to them he’s a provocateur thumbing his nose at PC culture… when in reality he’s a bigot espousing 100 year old views. That’s actually pretty clever and leads to some potentially fun ideas, including him getting asked to do a debate at a college campus where everyone seems totally fine with him saying horrible things because it’s provocative. The problem is that this is the most interesting part of the film and it only comes in around the end and it’s over with quickly, it’s honestly the thing I would’ve liked a lot more time with.
An American Pickle also touches on ideas of cancel culture (in that it doesn’t exist because the person getting cancelled tends to be picked up by those who enjoy the horrible things he says) and how the modern workforce is dramatically different to what it used to be, but it only touches on these ideas because it’s picked its lane as “Family” while leaving all this interesting social commentary just waiting to be played with and it barely seems to touch it.
Add onto that the tone problems, the film definitely plays broad with a lot of its comedic moments but, counterintuitively, it’s also very understated. The story is small, the jokes are small, it’ll throw a broad comic punch before letting all the air out instantly and going small again. This is probably another of those “Differences between 1919 and 2019” things that the film does, but it’s the biggest hurdle because it makes it hard to get into the groove of the film’s comic timing, meaning the jokes don’t quite land as well as they should. I found myself going “huh, that’s funny” more times than I caught myself actually laughing, which is a shame because the film is likeable enough that I want to get into it.
As it stands, An American Pickle is an acquired taste that some people are probably going to love and others won’t be able to swallow. It has ideas that it doesn’t explore as much as it should and a tone that I can’t quite get a hold of, but it’s blessed with a pair of lead performances that’re likeable enough that it makes the film reasonably enjoyable.