Inert comedy spoils its promising concept
An American Pickle
1 hour 30 minutes • Streaming on HBO Max
August 5, 2020
Adapted from the four-part New Yorker novella Sell Out, the movie is co-produced by childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. But it lacks the signature brand of raunchy humor that the duo solidified with hits like Superbad and This Is the End. Instead, director Brandon Trost vacillates between broad comedy and saccharine family drama within a stifling PG-13 framework.
Rogen does double duty as both Herschel and Ben Greenbaum, the former a struggling immigrant worker from the 1920s and the latter a meek app developer living in present day Brooklyn. Thanks to a bizarre accident involving a giant vat of pickles, Herschel’s body is preserved for a century. When a drone knocks the lid off his containment tank, he awakens completely unchanged but in a world that has since passed him by. He then meets Ben, his great-grandson and only surviving relative, who initially welcomes the idea of acclimating Herschel to his new environment but quickly sours to his austere disposition.
The elevator pitch for An American Pickle boils down to a clear-cut fish out of water story, although perhaps “mensch out of brine” would be a bit more fitting in this case. It’s a fun premise, one that could juxtapose a previous generation’s concept of rugged physical labor with the millennial’s more techno-centric workplace, among other things. For some reason, screenwriter Simon Rich sends Herschel and Ben their separate ways early on for contrived reasons and pits them against each other for the majority of the story. This not only makes little sense from a dramatic perspective, but also makes the humor more mean-spirited than it needs to be as Ben actively sabotages Herschel on multiple occasions.
Of course, I don’t have a problem with darker comedies; Rogen made quite a good one years ago with Observe and Report and he’s also flexed some impressive dramatic chops in films like Take This Waltz and Steve Jobs. Despite crafting two distinct roles with one requiring that he grow an uncomfortably long beard, Rogen just doesn’t seem to have the assistance that he needs here both on and off screen.
Nearly every supporting player gets a maximum of two or three scenes with one of Rogen’s characters, which doesn’t give them enough time to establish themselves within the story. Since this is primarily a comedy, it would help if these side characters had funny lines to share. More often than not, they don’t.
The movie gets off on the right foot with a prologue setting up Herschel’s life in the fictional Eastern Europe town of Schlupsk, where a series of shovel-based sight gags amusingly sell our hero’s misfortune. Cinematographer John Guleserian gives these early moments a distinctive visual style, using a 4:3 ratio with a hazy edge of frame that recalls silent films from the era in which the scenes take place. It’s an ambitious place to start a Seth Rogen comedy, but past that opening, the film is comparatively much more complacent.
With aimless direction and a lackluster script, An American Pickle puts its star in quite the conundrum indeed.
Also new to streaming this weekend
Available to rent on demand is She Dies Tomorrow, an arthouse horror film starring Kate Lyn Sheil and Jane Adams about a young woman whose existential dread manifests itself into a contagious disease.
Available on Netflix is Work It, a dance movie starring Sabrina Carpenter and Liza Koshy about a college freshman who enters a dance competition with a group of her fellow students.
Available to rent on demand is I Used To Go Here, a comedy starring Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement about a writer who is asked to speak at her alma mater by her former professor.
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