VOD film review: An American Pickle
Mark Harrison | On 03, May 2021
Director: Brandon Trost
Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Eliot Glazer, Jorma Taccone, Kalen Allen
Featuring two Seth Rogens on opposite ends of a three-generation divide, An American Pickle is about the immigrant experience, but its title also refers to the unusual method that brings Jewish pest-control worker Herschel Greenbaum from Brooklyn in 1919 to the present day.
Early on in the story, Herschel (Rogen) falls into a vat of brine at the pickle factory where he works and is perfectly preserved until he’s rediscovered a century later. For a man who has spent a century in brine, Herschel is understandably a little salty about his liberal millennial great-grandson, Ben (Rogen again), living a comfortable life with what looks like minimal effort.
Written by Simon Rich from his own short story Sell Out, the film expands the premise to feature-length with piecemeal comic interludes, effectively starting with a self-contained 10-minute sepia-toned short film about Herschel’s move from rural Poland to New York City with his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), before blushing into full colour as the plot moves into the 21st century.
But rather than cohering from there, the staggered class divide between Herschel and Ben is explored in skittish, quirky episodes. Sometimes, that kind of gels with the fish-out-of-water perspective – it’s as if this film itself has emerged from the past, irked that this sort of thing would be a streaming online sketch series in this day and age and stubbornly deciding it’s going to be a feature film anyway.
The perfect capsule of what the YouTube version of this premise would look like comes around the mid-point, with a detour into culture-war territory. The structure allows it to get in and out quickly and, depending on your mileage with this kind of gag, it’s either wittily paced or just mercifully brief. Either way, at 89 minutes, the film is short enough to get away with its scrappy construction, although it doesn’t really escalate over its running time as you might like from a high-concept comedy in this style.
Instead, it’s elevated by Seth Rogen’s mighty dual performance. It’s a curious give-and-take between the two characters taking turns to be each other’s foil. If nothing else, this is the most literal illustration of Rogen’s range we’re likely to see. Even in a year of watching comedians perform opposite themselves in online comedy skits, he’s on impressive form here. In the hands of cinematographer-turned-director Brandon Trost, it doesn’t look out of place on a big screen either, for those of us in the UK who saw the film at a multiplex last summer.
Underplayed to the hilt, An American Pickle outwardly takes little relish in how innately daft its premise is but serving up many portions in a short period allows it to hit most of its targets quickly and not linger on any misses. This one-man two-hander may not deliver loads of massive belly laughs, but that’s not to say its measured and wistful approach to a wacky proposition isn’t funny anyway.