Worthy Points but Ugly Revenge
Seth Rogen plays dual roles in An American Pickle, the new comedy from director Brandon Trost and former SNL scribe Simon Rich. He is both Herschel Greenbaum, a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century ditch digger plying his craft in Eastern Europe, as well as Ben Greenbaum, a 30-something freelance app developer living in a Brooklyn apartment.
We learn that 100 years ago, after emigrating with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) to the U.S. for a better life, Herschel fell into a vat of pickles where he remained in a state of cryo-brined stasis until eventually awakening in modern-day Brooklyn and meeting his grandson, Ben.
Saying that Herschel is facing a bout of culture shock would be putting it lightly. Last he remembers, he left a job which paid him to pound any rats that wander into the factory with a wooden mallet before awakening in a strange world with tall buildings, computers, iPads, and cell phones.
The opening act is all about Herschel and Ben trying to get along. Ben introduces his great-grandfather to modern technology, pop-culture trends, and all the nifty little things that make our lives easier, while Herschel tries to grasp why his innate, roll-up-your-sleeves work attitude has little place in his new world.
The first bits of tension between the two arise when Ben struggles to explain the lack of his own family and religious structure: two tenets very important to Herschel who made it to America thanks to family, faith, and sheer hard work. With the stage set for a clash-of-cultures, we venture into the film’s second and third acts, which fail to live up to the promise of the opening.
An American Pickle makes its debut on home video courtesy of the newly formed HBO Max. If the fledgling network – a joint venture between HBO and Warner Bros. – hopes to become the preferred home for small-budgeted films aimed at the straight-to-streaming market, better choices will need to be made going forward, because this pickle has soured.To be fair, that’s a bit overly harsh and Rogen is actually quite good in the film, so there are enough enjoyable moments to keep it from sinking in its own vat of mediocrity. However, what begins as a fun – and funny – little fish-out-of-water story fails to keep its momentum going once the initial setup has been established.
What was meant to be a biting little comedy that throws subversive commentary at all sorts of our societal ills, including the current state of family in America, faith, culture, and the widening gaps between generations, morphs into a mean-spirited and off-putting revenge flick with a middle act that has Herschel unintentionally sinking the sale of Ben’s app to a rich investor, then Ben exacting revenge by purposefully sabotaging Herschel’s burgeoning new artisanal pickle business.
Of course, the joke here is that his customers consider Herschel’s pickles “artisanal” when, in fact, he found some rotting cucumbers and dirty jars in a dumpster, allowed them to fill with rainwater and now sells them for a premium to hipsters on the Brooklyn streets.
We soon find ourselves slogging through a rather ugly revenge plot that doesn’t offer enough comedy or heart to offset the repulsive actions of its characters. It is exactly this kind of discomforting tonal shift and narrative inconsistency that hobble An American Pickle quite significantly. Significantly enough, in fact, that the heartfelt closing act in which the pair reconcile their differences doesn’t earn its desired emotions.
There’s enough good material here with plenty of worthy points that need to be made about millennials, boomers, social media, and the importance of family. But ultimately, An American Pickle fails to win our hearts.
(Released by HBO Max and rated “PG-13” for some language and rude humor.)
Review also posted on www.franksreelreviews.com.