Review: An American Pickle is as much a relic as its century-old lead

Art: Kevin, by way of Sweet Pickles books

An American Pickle is based on screenwriter Simon Rich’s own 2012 New Yorker Daily Shouts piece, and it shows. With nary a B-story and scarcely a supporting player, its high-concept premise—a 30-something man from 1919 is brined in his workplace pickle vat and wakes up, preserved, in modern-day Brooklyn, and moves in with his like-aged great-grandson—is magazine thin. And its cultural gags—if you can even call them that—reek of the early 2010s. It’s all those old “hur-hur, hipsters!” yuks dragged into the next decade and coming across as anachronistic as the comedy’s premise. From the moment the film proper opens on a quadcopter, it’s an endless barrage of hoverboards, kombucha, non-dairy milks, SodaStreams, electric rental scooters, jackfruit nachos, kelp ceviche, Twitter, cancel culture—the list goes on. These aren’t played for fish-out-of-water laughs; Herschel, our century-fermented co-lead, is more or less indifferent to all these bougie Brooklyn trappings. They’re on display for us the audience to chuckle at, smugly nodding in acknowledgement that there are indeed a lot of non-dairy milk options these days. It’s so true!

As Herschel and grandson Ben (both Seth Rogen) walk the streets of Williamsburg, every extra is from central casting. One of them—a caricature with a big beard, a man-bun, and a Herschel-style old cap—asks if Herschel’s “cool clothes” are vintage, because of course that was going to happen. From then on, you’re just waiting for Herschel to hurry up and get to the inevitable business of selling “artisanal” pickles to the gentrifying masses. Don’t worry: you get there by the halfway point of the film’s scant but still too long 89 minutes.

With Rogen in the dual leads, just as assured is their eventual swapped identities—but it’s at least surprising how they get there. Sparing us the fish-out-of-water or odd couple approaches the concept begs for (it’s genuinely surprising there’s not a cute crush at work Herschel helps Ben land), the film’s midsection instead becomes sort of a back-and-forth of vengeance after Herschel gets himself and Ben arrested for assault. In hindsight, that measn their fingerprints would be on file and later invalidates the legally-swapped identity plot point, but still, An American Pickle at least manages to dodge its own expected plot structure.

At the film’s open, in a prologue that feels like a lost Drunk History, we see how Herschel came from a dreary, impoverished town in Eastern Europe. As he explains in a thick, cartoon Russian accent how he used to dig ditches with his hands, it basically sets up Borat reimagined with a pro-Jew stance, but kudos to Rogen for his relative restraint. It’s easy to think how Sacha Baron Cohen or someone like Rogen hero Adam Sandler would have gone huge and grating with the character, but the actor goes about as small as the goofy part allows. He also lends Ben a relaxed naturalism that seems effortless but, given that Rogen had to act against his virtual self, certainly took more effort than most of the film’s gag references.

Still, it’s hard to deny there’s some cute-enough charm beneath this dated cinematic listicle of Things Millennials Waste Their Money On. (Somehow, avocado toast may not have made an appearance.) An American Pickle isn’t really bad; it’s just a cheap shot of one-note jokes that needs the brine of a Williamsburg hipster pickleback to choke down.

Grade: C-

An American Pickle
Director: Brandon Trost
Studio: HBO
Runtime: 89 minutes
Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Eliot Glazer, Jorma Taccone, Tim Robinson

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