Premise: An immigrant worker at a pickle factory is accidentally preserved for 100 years and wakes up in modern day Brooklyn.
An American Pickle‘s concept should be a delightful fish out of water story around which to build a movie. For the first 20 minutes or so, it achieves this well enough. However, it soon abandons that concept in favor of a satirical look at capitalism and the pursuit of the American dream in the age of social media mob rule. Unfortunately, it isn’t as interesting or as funny as the premise that it leaves behind in its first act, which itself was only skating by on the charisma of Seth Rogen’s performance.
Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson Ben (both played by Seth Rogen) are solid enough foils for one another. Ben is a mobile app developer working on an app that tells users how ethical a company is when they scan a product. While Herschel is a man who fell into a pickle vat and was brined for 100 years before waking in modern day Brooklyn. The characters are a good match and the movie explains away its high concept with a silly wink to its audience through Herschel’s voiceover.
Herschel emigrated to America in the early 20th century with the hope that his family would thrive in the land of opportunity. In this way, Herschel represents the weight and pressure of Ben’s obligation to make something of himself and his family name. That gives the movie some needed emotional resonance, especially toward the end. But An American Pickle only seems interested in checking in on this theme sporadically throughout its runtime without giving it its much needed attention. This is especially noticeable when the characters are separated for a large portion of the movie’s second act.
This separation feels out of place and is where the satire of the film kicks into high gear. Unfortunately, as a satire, An American Pickle falls flat. It makes broad swipes at social media mobs and the court of public opinion without having much of anything to say about it beneath its surface level bits. Furthermore, it depicts the ebb and flow of social media hive minds’ response to controversial statements and figures in a heightened version of our reality. This element gets a passing grade but, again, it serves to only point out that which is already obvious to anyone living in the bizarre hell scape of the USA in the year 2020.
The finished product of An American Pickle is a disjointed experience that doesn’t offer much to laugh at or anything insightful to say through its satire. The dual performance of Seth Rogen as Ben and Herschel has its moments, especially in the more dramatic moments. However, the high concept fish out of water story is abandoned too early and the rest of the film suffers from a lack of identity and direction as a result.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.