A Jewish immigrant is preserved in pickle brine for 100 years and reunites in the present day with his last surviving relative.
Directed by Brandon Trost
Starring Seth Rogen
Review by Jon Kissel
Immigrant stories have long been sources of pathos and cinematic emotion, and the idea of a pre-Holocaust Jew who escapes Europe with his wife only to be frozen and woken back up long after she’s dead is rich with potential. The film realizes this in the early-going, when it’s still possible for it to be a good movie. Herschel has a miserabilist ethic borne out of a miserable environment, and tries to get Ben to share all the intimate details of his parent’s/Herschel’s grandchild’s death in a car accident. This living in the midst of pain contrasted with an American willful blindness to it could easily sit next to jokes about pickles made with bird shit: it essentially comes from the same sociological place. Instead, the film quickly jettisons the rich emotional potential this story contains for the lowest of low-hanging fruit.
An American Pickle is written by Simon Rich, one of those Harvard-educated Lampoon veterans who gets a book deal before graduation and who’s then immediately hired at SNL. His work here makes an argument against connected meritocracy. The division between Herschel and Ben that drives most of the film never feels real or earned. It initially stems from Ben getting arrested alongside Herschel after fighting off construction workers at the family gravesite, an easily explainable mix-up that in no way should prevent Ben’s irritating consumer-conscious app from getting off the ground. The film knows how absurd this is because it feels the need to goose the events by plastering Ben’s mugshot on the front page of a digital news site, as if he was Jeff Bezos’ dick and not some anonymous coder who’s experienced zero personal success. Things only get more false from there. The public seems far more interested in Herschel as a maker of curbside pickles than a man who spent a century sleeping alongside them. For a film that misguidedly wants to seem relevant, it has no idea what would be irrevocably controversial: saying that Mary was a prostitute who lied about the virgin birth is somehow a greater sin in contemporary New York than even using the word ‘sodomite.’ Rich’s script, brough to aimless life by Trost’s perfunctory direction, becomes tortuous to get through, a series of unimaginative digs at unpaid interns and Twitter reactions.
If this was just a lackluster comedy, I’d be less irritated by it. The missed opportunity of the premise is more annoying. Maybe once Trost and Rich realized that Rogen is incapable of selling the emotional moments, they excised theoretical better bits and subbed in him clumsily running from an angry mob. There are parts of Rogen’s performance I greatly enjoy, like his ability as an old-timey boxer and the way Herschel rejoices at the news that the curer of polio was a Jew. None of those sparse nuggets are in service towards a film that makes any kind of sense, plot or emotional or otherwise. An American Pickle needed to be of the sweet variety, not the pungent nonsense that’s apparently hot in these millennial streets. C-