Looking at the world we live in from an outsider’s perspective is a compelling concept, especially when juxtaposed to how simple life was 100 years ago. Waking up in a world where everything and everyone you know is gone is not a new narrative and yet, it still never fails to get me thinking on how that would feel and how ridiculous the way we live can sometimes seem.
Directed by Brandon Trost, An American Pickle is based on a novella titled Sell Out by Simon Rich, who also wrote the screenplay. The story begins in Eastern Europe and follows Herschel Greenbaum as he meets the love of his life, Sarah, before they immigrate to America and dream of how their family legacy can thrive. One day after getting a job at a pickle factory in Brooklyn, Herschel accidentally falls into a vat of, you guessed it, pickles. He is found perfectly preserved due to the brine 100 years later where he begins his journey adjusting to our society as we know it.
Seth Rogen is no stranger to comedy. In this film, he has double billing for he plays Herschel as well as his only remaining relative in the present, his great-grandson Ben. His performance as Herschel is fantastic and more so than Ben, to the point where sometimes you forget that he is even playing two characters. His early 1900’s Eastern European accent is spot on and it is not hard to believe why he would take certain actions based on his dated ideologies. It feels like a new character for Rogen and he truly does a terrific job. As Herschel and Ben are the central characters for the vast majority of An American Pickle, it was so critical to be invested in them and thankfully, you get hooked. You easily sympathize with the two as a result of what they have lost and how life has treated them.
Simon Rich’s script is solid, however, certain parts are dragged out and paced quite slowly. Though, for the most part you stay engaged. There are patches that come across as silly and over the top as well, contrivances where you cannot, for example, understand how no one helped Herschel out of the pickle vat after hearing him fall and standing right next to it. Getting past this, the second act is the strongest and contains great comedic moments where the film really starts to home in on the way we live.
A considerable amount of the humor stems from how our modern lives look to who is only familiar with the past. Simple references such as customers asking if the pickles Herschel eventually sells at his cart are organic or have any preservatives leave him perplexed as these are unfamiliar terms to him. There is a certain touch of irony here in that we as a society claim to be filled with new ideas and so much more developed than the past, but in some respects, there is a desire to return to the ways of the old which is why Herschel’s business is successful as he simply does not know any better. The two central characters are literal representations of their time periods and subsequent ideologies. When pitted against each other, both tension and humor ensue.
The opening act set in Eastern Europe is thoroughly enjoyable, where we are shown this beautiful, yet quirky love story. You become quickly engrossed in Herschel and Sarah’s happiness as a couple, so much that it is easy to sympathize with his pain when he wakes up in the modern day and she is no longer there. There are small nuances that elevate the experience on behalf of director Brandon Trost, such as the use of aspect ratio to make it appear like an old movie in the beginning to the eventual ratio change we associate with modern films. It is a physical representation of change between time and represents how significant the adaptations in our lifestyle and craft have been over the past hundred years.
Despite An American Pickle being classified as a comedy, it does give you time to reflect and ponder on the way we live. One critical theme is family and how we are perhaps becoming increasingly disconnected from the importance of family. Throughout the entire narrative, Herschel is immensely fixated on how great the legacy of his family will be, but is then disappointed when Ben initially does not live up to what he had envisioned. A really heartwarming notion that is embedded into the overarching story is the fact that manifesting a legacy is out of your control – there is no way to possibly predict how much the world, and the people within it, will change in 100 years time. The solution to this is accepting, embracing, and being proud of what you do have at arm’s reach.
Brandon Trost and Seth Rogen have created quite the cathartic comedy with An American Pickle. Hilarious, but you will remember its thought-provoking themes more than anything. It is not too often that you find a film where there is a balance of comedy with messages that make you reflect on modernity, and your own way of living. It is most definitely unique and a good lighthearted watch, but more importantly, not absent minded at all.