Dir: Brandon Trost. Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone and Maya Erskine. 12A cert, 90 mins
There is a smallness to An American Pickle. The stakes are low, the colours muted. And it’s pretty much a one-man show – or, to be more precise, one man playing two men. In the film adaptation of Simon Rich’s four-part novella Sell Out, published in the New Yorker in 2013, Seth Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish ditch-digger hailing from the fictional Eastern European village of Schlupsk in the early 20th century, who emigrates to the United States, falls into a pickle vat, and wakes up a century later. Rogen also plays Herschel’s last living descendant, Ben Greenbaum, an app developer in Brooklyn who wears shoes without socks and has a fridge stocked full of kombucha.
Its premise may sound quaint, but the whimsy of An American Pickle helps nurture all kinds of delicate emotions – grief after it’s been dulled by time, the fear of disappointing one’s parents, and an existential kind of weightlessness. Herschel’s village, all Gothic awnings and slate-grey timber, looks like it’s tumbled out of a fairytale book. Brandon Trost, the cinematographer on a number of Rogen’s films (including This Is the End, The Interview, and The Disaster Artist), here makes his solo directorial debut – he uses a square, 1:1 aspect ratio for these early scenes, the edges of the frame gently blurred like a tintype photograph.
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Misery is at the heart of Schlupsk-ian life; Herschel first bonds with his great love, Sarah (Succession’s Sarah Snook), because both their favourite colours are black and their parents were murdered by Cossacks. After tragedy strikes again, the couple travel to Ellis Island – so bewitched are they by the American Dream that Herschel is happy to spend his days clubbing rats in a pickle factory, in a country rife with antisemitism. Anything is better than the Cossacks.
When Herschel awakens from his pickle-induced coma, he hopes to discover that his progeny have become “powerful, successful, the strongest in the land”. Then he meets his great-grandson Ben. This man possesses all manner of wondrous, modern comforts – seven pairs of shoes! A seltzer machine! – but why doesn’t he know the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead? How then is he supposed to work through the untimely loss of his parents in a car crash? And how can he build his legacy when he’s spent the last five years living off their inheritance, tinkering away on his app (called Boop Bop, of all things), coiled up in his own perfectionism?
An American Pickle gently prods at the absurdity of modern life – Herschel crosses paths with influencers, interns, and right-wing punditry. But Rich, who here adapts his own story, doesn’t have any sweeping point to make. It’s simply amusing to be reminded of the strange things we’ve accepted as everyday normality. This is a more subdued, introspective Rogen than audiences might be used to seeing, though it’s a mode he’s gifted in, as already seen in 50/50 (2011) and Take This Waltz (2011). While Herschel and Ben both serve as parodies of their respective eras, they’re also fully fleshed characters, burdened by the painful memories of lost loved ones – at times, Rogen’s smile will droop suddenly, as if the mask of contentment has momentarily slipped.
Trost’s film illuminates a past where daily hardships are soothed through ritual and routine, and a present where the illusion of total freedom gives way to disconnect and uncertainty. Grief has its place in both worlds. An American Pickle is finely attuned to both the Jewish and wider immigrant experience, but it’s interested also in how we’re all bound by one commonality – we are all vessels for the memories of those long gone.