An American Pickle (2020)
Director: Brandon Trost
Screenwriter: Simon Rich
Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone
The year is 1919, Herschel (Rogen) and Sarah Greenbaum (Snook) sit looking out over their favourite lake in Poland, dreaming of the future they might have. Sarah would like to be rich enough to have her own headstone and Herschel would really like to try Seltzer water. When their village is attacked by Russian Cossacks, they decide to make the big move to America. Herschel secures a job as a rat killer in a pickle factory, and things begin looking up for the couple until one day Herschel falls into a vat of pickling brine and, for reasons explained by scientists, is preserved for 100 years. Once Herschel is awoken in 2019, he is introduced to his great grandson Ben, an app developer, also played by Seth Rogen. Ben has everything that Herschel could have ever wanted, which is Seltzer water whenever he wants it. After falsely coming to believe the Cossacks have ravaged his now deceased wife’s grave, Herschel tasks himself with cleaning up the cemetery, and so begins this year’s most bizarre and unique take on the time travel, fish out of water narrative, An American Pickle.
The film is written by Simon Rich, a well known ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Pixar staff writer, who has adapted his 2014 short story, “Sell Out”, for the big screen. The standout aspect of this adaptation is how it paints Brooklyn with light strokes and doesn’t rely on what have become lazy stereotypes about this particular New York district. In An American Pickle, not everyone is a nut milk drinking hipster for example, although those still exist. Instead, there’s a rich variety of characters, and the film is overall a strong mix of SNL and New Yorker style humour: sophisticated but not alienating.
Contributing enormously to this sensibility is Seth Rogen, who plays two clear and distinct characters in this Brandon Trost directed release, his talent at doing so no better expressed than in one moment where Herschel is pretending to be Ben, and you know who is who. Like the best dual roles, you almost forget that these two characters are played by just one actor – Rogen is an absolute joy to watch, and he seems to have made a conscious effort to surpass his usual style of playing the stoned loser (there aren’t even any weed jokes in this film). An American Pickle doesn’t even rely on a change of costume or facial hair to differentiate the characters, and Rogen is therefore tasked with presenting two unique and recognisable personalities in all aspects of each performance, ultimately offering one of the best dual performances in years.
Despite its positives, An American Pickle is let down by a third act which shows the cracks in this inflated short story. Herschel is a man out of time, and therefore has opinions that do not fit with 2019 America due to his “traditional” views, but discrepancies between which things he simply accepts and which things he fights tooth and nail to protect (through a surprising “freedom of speech” activist sub-plot) are too glaring to go unnoticed, and throw the film’s politics into question. Is An American Pickle for or against free speech? It’s hard to tell. And that’s part of the problem. Were it not for the charm of Rogen in the role, this could have been a major issue, but fortunately for all involved Rogen is strong enough to help you forget any issues that this may bring up.
Overall, An American Pickle is a charming film with an original premise. It may have its issues thematically, but it is overall a wholesome story sold by a terrific combination of leading performances from Seth Rogen. It’s likely that An American Pickle will be one of those films that many people let pass them by, but given a chance it could certainly be worth your time.