Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
AN AMERICAN PICKLE
Rated PG-13, 88 minutes
Directed by: Brandon Trost
Director Brandon Trost’s AN AMERICAN PICKLE is an absolutely brilliant two-hander between Seth Rogen and himself, centering on an overachieving immigrant who is accidentally brined and awakened a century later only to find his last living relative rejects the notion of family. Akin to the delightfully, deliciously bombastic hijinks in ADAPTATION, this poignant and provocative comedy about success and achievement delivers on its sensational, hysterically funny, incredibly winsome promises. It’s exactly what we need right now.
Things aren’t going Herschel Greenbaum’s (Seth Rogen) way in 1919, but this is his normal. He’s a poor, unlucky, Jewish ditch digger in the unrelentingly dank and depressing Eastern European village of Schlupsk. He’s got big dreams of marrying for love and becoming wealthy enough to buy his own gravestone and drink seltzer water. Yet right when he’s just about given up, a beautiful companion enters his life: Sarah (Sarah Snook). Not only does she have “all her teeth,” she shares in Herschel’s ambition. So much so, they marry and immigrate to New York to live the American dream.
Herschel gets a job killing rats at a pickle factory, making enough to buy a family plot and support Sarah, who is expecting their first child. Still fortune doesn’t smile on the Greenbaums for much longer. A freak accident causes Herschel to fall into a vat of pickles right before it’s sealed and the factory immediately condemned. However, a hundred years later in present day, Herschel is freed from containment, perfectly preserved by the brine. Doctors discharge him in the care of his only relative: great grandson Ben (Rogen), an indecisive mobile app developer living in Brooklyn who is Herschel’s same apparent age. They even look alike, give or take a beard and a pair of glasses.
Fish out of water jokes abound, but don’t suffer from any sense of staleness. The funniest gags are character based, like Herschel discovering this past century’s carbonated water advancements, or getting caught in a social media firestorm because of his backwards beliefs. The filmmakers also carve out time for calamitous absurdity, like when Herschel’s un-PC opinions make him a pawn in the media and political discourse, or his anger flares over the Russian vodka billboard towering over the family plot. The bonus is that they can weave those uproariously funny asides into the narrative’s straight-forward conceit. Nami Melumad’s score augments the broader comedic overtones during these sequences. Lisa Zeno Churgin’s edits keep jokes bright and snappy, complementing the rhythmic comedic timing.
Though the execution is a little bumpy, there’s a lot of heart behind the picture’s sentiments about familial honor, work ethic and religious heritage. The primary source of conflict stems from Ben’s inability to deal with residual grief over his parents’ death years prior, which naturally affects his professional and personal life. He’s let his religious ties decompose, not observing traditions, nor acknowledging his parents in his apartment’s decor. The sadness and chaos within his soul, and within the pair’s non-existent relationship, is contextualized metaphorically through the decaying state of the Greenbaums’ burial plot.
Audience loyalty is tested for both characters during a large stretch devoted towards Ben’s spiteful campaign to sabotage Herschel’s endeavors. The time-traveling immigrant’s unwitting actions put Ben’s app prospects on ice and Ben retaliates, continuing to do so even after Herschel returns offering to help Ben. While it might lead to some confusion as to who we’re supposed to be rooting for, it’s highly entertaining to see them besting each other. It does come at a slight cost to sympathy, despite being a necessary factor in building to the sweetly satisfying resolution.
Grade: 4 out of 5
AN AMERICAN PICKLE begins streaming on HBOMax on August 6.