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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

An American Pickle

Seth Rogen stars opposite himself in this affable, sometimes thoughtful but mostly forgettable fish-out-of-water comedy.
By Sarah Ward
September 17, 2020
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An American Pickle

Seth Rogen stars opposite himself in this affable, sometimes thoughtful but mostly forgettable fish-out-of-water comedy.
By Sarah Ward
September 17, 2020
  shares

If an early 20th-century Jewish immigrant found himself walking around in 2019, what would he think of the world? That question comes with a flipside, of course, because it's equally valid to wonder how today's folks would react in response. With Seth Rogen starring as a ditch-digging, rat-catching new arrival from Eastern Europe to Brooklyn, these are a couple of the queries pondered by An American Pickle. It's the latest in a long line of comedies that trifle with time while doubling as time capsules, and it falls firmly from a familiar mould. Some such flicks send teens to the past via Deloreans and phone booths, as seen in the Back to the Future and Bill & Ted franchises. Others focus on people from another era grappling with modern living, as the likes of Encino Man and Blast From the Past demonstrated. Yes, these concepts were particularly popular in the 80s and 90s — but no matter when they flicker across our screens, they do two things: serve up a snapshot of the attitudes and norms prevalent when they're made, and explore how current perspectives intersect with those gone by.

That's true of An American Pickle, and overtly so, with seeing, examining and giggling at the contrast between century-old ways and contemporary ideas a considerable part of the film. Not only that, but this Simon Rich-penned adaptation of his own short story Sell Out does all of the above broadly and blatantly — pointing out that big, bushy beards have become hipster beacons, for example, and that much has progressed since the 1900s. Consequently, there's no avoiding just how slight An American Pickle is. Its protagonist might fall into a vat of brine, get sealed in, then emerge in a new millennium, but this movie isn't diving deep. Thankfully, mixed up with all the obvious jokes are two thoughtful performances, both by Rogen, that help the film interrogate the push and pull between the past and the present in a moving fashion.

Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, a new arrival to US with his wife Sarah (Succession's Sarah Snook), after the pair leave their home of Schlupsk to escape Russian Cossacks and chase a better life. Rogen also steps into the shoes of app developer Ben Greenbaum, Herschel's great-grandson and only living descendant when he awakens in his preserved (and presumably extra salty) state. The two men are the same age, and look alike. That said, they sport differences beyond Herschel's facial hair and Ben's technological know-how. It's the usual generational divide, as instantly recognisable to everyone watching. The elder Greenbaum is devoted to his family and faith, and is horrified that his sole remaining relative doesn't appear as fussed about either, while Ben gets increasingly frustrated with his great-grandpa's know-it-all-approach, bluntness and incessant meddling.

Rich gives the two men more reasons to argue, and for Ben to start plotting Herschel's downfall. An app that rates companies on their ethics, an artisanal pickle business that becomes a viral hit and a towering billboard for vodka all factor into their feud. So too does Ben's willingness to capitalise upon Herschel's inherent ignorance of 21st-century minutiae, and the proud and stubborn Herschel's insistence upon staying set in his ways. The details are almost superfluous and, as the narrative keeps picking low-hanging comic fruit, they feel that way in the movie as well. Herschel upends Ben's business plans with some unethical behaviour, and Ben tricks Herschel into spouting his dated and offensive opinions on social media, but there's never any doubt that it'll all eventually work out.

As a result, even though An American Pickle delivers plenty of conflict, there's no real drama here — and no real investment in Herschel and Ben's spat. Instead, the movie deploys over-the-top clashes in the service of clearcut gags and satirical observations, and to drum up easy laughs. Well that, and a product placement-driven fondness for Soda Stream that's the one thing Herschel and Ben always agree on. But, despite how straightforward it all proves, the film still boasts heart, sweetness, and an understanding of how the past always leaves an imprint, the future needn't fastidiously be chained to tradition, and that everything old and all things new have a symbiotic relationship.

Yes, watching Rogen battle with himself manages to convey those notions. Luckily, too, given that the latest feature from The FP's Brandon Trost is rather standard otherwise. Generally, everything about An American Pickle takes the expected option — including switching aspect ratios to distinguish between 1919 and 2019, and using varying colour palettes to differentiate between Eastern Europe and America — but that description doesn't fit Rogen. If you've seen him in everything from Freaks and Geeks and Knocked Up to the Bad Neighbours movies and Long Shot, you've probably started predicting how he plays his parts here. And yet Herschel and Ben feel grounded and textured in a way that little else in this flick does. Rogen offers up two convincingly melancholy visions of two men cartoonishly wrapped up in their own needs and ideas, and his dual performances are consistently anchored in relatable emotions instead of merely self-evident jokes. And, in an affable but also mostly forgettable film, he's the only aspect that doesn't feel like it's been pulled straight from a jar that's been sitting on the shelf for quite some time.

Top image: Hopper Stone. © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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