By SHLOMO SCHWARTZBERG
An American Pickle, the first feature film offered by HBO Max, (showing on Crave TV in Canada), doesn’t really move much beyond its basic idea.
Seth Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, an immigrant to the U.S. who works in a pickle factory, circa 1919. When he accidentally falls into a pickle barrel, the brine preserves him, until he is discovered a century later. When he emerges into our world, he has to adjust to its myriad changes while also trying to bond with his great-grandson Ben (Rogen, in a dual role).
In many ways, the movie, written by Simon Rich, and adapted from his serialized 2013 New Yorker short story Sellout, never allows its viewers to suspend their disbelief as, for example, the fish out of water (literally) movie Splash did so well. Would the pickle factory, condemned right after Herschel’s accident, actually survive as untouched real estate for that long? Do they expect us to accept that that the scientists who get hold of the revived Herschel would not prepare him for his new world by showing him what has transpired since he was pickled? Yes, An American Pickle is a fantasy, but even that genre has to function logically.
Mind you, with its flat depiction of Herschel’s Eastern European birthplace (called Shlupsk – not as funny a name as Rich thinks it is), it’s apparent that the movie lacks imagination, resorting to lame Cossack jokes and quaint societal portraits. This isn’t Fiddler on the Roof, not by a long shot.
An American Pickle is pretty thin, as Herschel, after fighting with Ben, sets out on his own to make a success of himself. He undergoes a series of adverse events before finally connecting with his relative over their shared loss of family. That’s the whole basic, banal, plot.
What we’re left with are some jokes about Herschel’s perceived “authenticity” – his pickle business goes viral after a blogger raves about him – and how his backwards, prejudiced, early 20th century views are a perfect fit for our current age of ignorant Twitter utterances and internet trolls.
The movie does try to have it both ways, however, suggesting an innate genius for business on Herschel’s part, but also positing that he is not smart enough to keep his retrograde views to himself. Those include opinions on Christianity that no Jew, much less a put-upon one from the shtetl, would ever utter in mixed, non-Jewish, company. Yet, there’s also a commensurate and curious lack of antisemitism manifest in this world, where Herschel riles up so many Americans.
An American Pickle, directed indifferently by Brandon Frost, is also not that Jewish. Yes, Ben is very assimilated, which shocks Herschel. And Herschel is angered when he sees a billboard ad for vodka hovering over the neglected Jewish cemetery where the Greenbaums are buried, associating that drink with the dreaded Cossacks of old. But this is comparatively weak stuff. The movie never matches the scene in Knocked Up, in which Rogen’s Jewish character kvells with his Jewish pals over Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Finally, they can relate to a movie in which Jews kick butt and take names, instead of – as usual in films – having their butts kicked. And there’s nothing in the movie that’s as brilliant as the concept of Woody Allen’s Zelig, with that character symbolizing the Jewish affinity for melding into whatever milieu he finds himself in.
Rogen’s performances are also problematic. Herschel has some character shadings, though he barely seems to register that he’s in an entirely different world than the one from his past. But Ben’s persona is so pallid, that he fails utterly to register emotionally. And what were Rogen (who co-produced the movie) and company thinking in wasting the talents of Sarah Snook, who plays Herschel’s wife Sarah and was so great as the scheming Siobhan Roy in HBO’s superb TV series Succession? At least Simon Rich’s short story proffered a female love interest for Ben’s character, which would have made for a perfect opportunity for the filmmakers to utilize Snook in a deeper, present day dual role, rather than the blink-and-you-miss-her near walk-on part as Sarah Greenbaum.
And if you’re wondering if this film will offend you in light of Rogen’s recent intemperate comments about Judaism and Israel he made on Marc Maron’s podcast, don’t worry. It’s too tame and innocuous to raise anyone’s hackles, except for those who actually expect comedies to be funny.
Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute, the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the London JCC, among other venues. He is also the co-founder of the noted Critics at Large cultural web site. (www.criticsatlarge.ca)