An American Pickle is a very funny and very weird movie that jumps from zany event to zany event, tonally hopping forcefully between maudlin and manic throughout. A lot of one’s willingness to enjoy the movie depends on if one finds Seth Rogen tolerable and how tolerable one finds two Seth Rogens simultaneously. Happily, the movie is strangely amusing enough and has a bunch of funny moments as it bobbles between social satire, meditation upon grief and loss, the magical properties of pickle preservation, and the disconnect between generations.
In 1920, Jewish immigrant Hershel (Rogen) is working in a USA pickle factory as a rat smasher to provide a good life for his pregnant wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook). Unfortunately, the rats fight back and force him off a ledge, falling into a vat of pickles. Remarkably, at the exact same time, the factory is shuttered and the pickle brine preserves him perfectly. 100 years later he has not aged a day and now in a strange new modern world his only family is his great grandson, Ben (also Rogen). After getting into a fight with Ben, Hershel strikes out on his own in the pickle business. Hershel becomes a social media star, which irritates Ben as he plots revenge against his great-grandfather as Hershel’s 100 year old ways does not exactly mesh with modern “woke” sensibilities. Also, Hershel’s dumpster diving for pickles is really gross and violating numerous health code rules.
Rogen often gets slammed for playing the same slacker character and while the character of Ben doesn’t dispute that, Hershel is one of the more original character’s he’s played. Surprisingly, Rogen also does a pretty convincing Eastern European accent. Hershel is completely disconnected from modern life and while the movie plays with a few man out of time tropes, it doesn’t entirely rely on them for laughs. Hershel definitely isn’t a slacker, when he’s introduced digging ditches it’s a funny scene but also it shows how hard working he is. The best stretch of movie is definitely the start showing Hershel’s life in 1920 with a boxy frame format like an old silent film. Hershel and his wife dream of a better life with dynamic things like seltzer water they can’t afford as they live under the brutal constant threat of Cossack attacks. Even when they make it to America, witnessing the callously xenophobic division of family by race seems comparatively pleasant to Hershel. The scene of him being pickle brined at the factory is hilariously bizarre, especially the really dopey throwaway explanation by a scientist why he survived.
The plot careens from one wacky episode to the next, sometimes stopping to have Ben be sad about his parents’ death which puts a damper on the proceedings in a movie that’s meant to be a wacky escape. Hershel also mourns for the loss of his family but it doesn’t define his character; when he finds out he freak outs, punches the messenger in the face, and then gets on with his life. What’s really funny is when Hershel starts his pickle business he cobbles it together from garbage and trendy city dwellers think he is selling “artisanal” food. When his business gets shut down, a fan proposes the idea of getting unpaid interns to work for him which Hershel enthusiastically agrees because he thinks they’re “slaves”. Molly Evensen plays the lead intern and she has some great line deliveries as she enthusiastically commands his workforce. Later, Ben tries to ruin Hershel by introducing him to the concept of twitter and naturally Hershel posts some incendiary tweets which gets him a bunch of conservative supporters. It is sort of a commentary on populist right wing propaganda getting attention and has some laughs as Hershel naturally puts his foot in his mouth eventually.
The movie really doesn’t take sides with either Ben or Hershel as they both have petty vindictive moments, although Hershel ends up being the more likeable one mostly because he’s completely unique. Also, while scenes of Hershel and his wife are brief, Snook and Rogen makes their interactions heartfelt. The fact that Hershel is so different from the standard Seth Rogen character, and the fact that Ben is pretty much the same guy he always plays, makes Hershel the more likeable one if only because it allows Rogen to stretch. Ben has a few funny lines but Hershel’s pronouncements are usually funnier because it’s so out there. Generally, in man out of time stories the character eventually adapts to modern life but this movie keeps Hershel pretty much the same, bending modern life in his own workmanlike way.
An American Pickle is an amusing movie that has some really weird asides that manages to put a bit of a fresh spin on the man out of time genre. Oddly, Rogen playing an atypical character is more endearing than the typical Rogen character he plays. It may sort of just have one joke, Hershel doesn’t know much about the modern world repeated over and over, but it delivers the one joke well.
An American Pickle
Director: Brandon Trost
Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook and Molly Evensen