Film Review – An American Pickle (2020)

Are we seeing a different side to Seth Rogen?  The guy who cornered the market in loveable stoners (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up et al) hasn’t abandoned comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but there are signs of him trying to stretch himself – not what you’d associate with the type of roles he usually favours.  Playing it straight as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs here, opting to be a more mature rom-com leading man in Long Shot there, there’s been a definite hint of a change brewing.

But we’re going to have to wait a while longer because, while on the surface, An American Pickle appears to be that film, it’s actually much more of a safe option.  The premise is whacky, whetting the appetite for a modern screwball comedy.  Dirt poor ditch digger Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) ekes out an existence in a Slupsk, a Polish village where he meets the love of his life, Sarah (Sarah Snook), a woman with a single minded ambition – affording a family plot at the cemetery.  But when the village is destroyed by Jew hating Cossacks, the couple escape to America, where Herschel gets a job in a pickle factory, only to fall into a pickling vat.  A hundred years later, he emerges from the brine, perfectly preserved but in 2019, an entirely new world where he has to live with his sole remaining relative, great grandson Ben (also Rogen), an app designer.

Cue a culture clash, a fish-out-of-water set up, with Herschel struggling to understand his alien surroundings, finding his views on religion, women and life in general are completely at odds not just with his great grandson but everybody else.  The two are soon at loggerheads, so that when he starts up an artisan pickle business, Ben’s revenge is to make him an overnight social media sensation – of the wrong variety.  The tone turns decidedly satirical, rather than broadly comedic, as the time travelling pickle entrepreneur with his outrageous Tweets becomes an unlikely celebrity, with what appear to be political ambitions.  Sound familiar?  It’s amusing enough, but as satire it lacks the bite of Herschel’s brine mixture.

The film isn’t short on chuckles.  There are contemporary references aplenty, as well as Herschel’s bewilderment at the world around him, to raise those all-essential smiles.  And if you think he looks remarkably like Topol in Fiddler On The Roof, wait until you see him dance! Having Rogen play both roles – they’re almost the only characters in the film – is more questionable.  The gag has passed its sell by date well before you take up your seat in the cinema.  It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Sarah Snook – maybe as another relative – as she’s enjoyably spirited by what little time she has on screen in the early sequences.

By the time the third act arrives, the tone of the film has softened and anything approaching the tang of Herschel’s brine has dissolved into something soft, predictable and safe.  That safety extends to Rogen’s choice of director: this may be Brandon Trost’s first feature, but he’s a familiar pair of hands for the actor, thanks to his work on The Disaster Artist, This Is The End and Bad Neighbours. The result is not so much a full blown pickle as a picalilli, soft and with a flavour that fades after the first couple of mouthfuls, leaving us with the fable of Rip Van Pickle and the millennial geek.

★★★


Comedy, Satire | Cert: 15 | Warner Brothers | 7 August 2020 | Dir. Brandon Trost | Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Geoffrey Canton, Sean Whalen, Jorma Taccone.

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