HBO Max’s recently released film An American Pickle hinges on a bizarre premise: In 1920, a Jewish immigrant named Herschel Greenbaum falls into a vat of pickle juice at a factory, where he lays dormant for a century before waking up in modern-day, gentrified Brooklyn. He hasn’t aged a day — and neither has his understanding of the world around him.
He awakens to a reality without his beloved wife, Sarah (played by Sarah Snook), who was pregnant at the time of Herschel’s unfortunate pickling. Filmed in a square 1:1 aspect ratio, the movie begins with the sepia-toned story of them arriving at Ellis Island from the town of Slupsk with nothing.
After narrating that scientists found “credible” reasons for his remarkable preservation, Herschel’s sole living descendent, Ben — a freelance app developer, also a Brooklynite — comes forward to take him in. (Ben’s parents died years before.)
Both are played convincingly by Seth Rogen. Ben, a clean-shaven tech dude who often describes things as “actually, pretty cool," stands distinct from the bearded, brash and heavily accented Herschel.
Despite these fantastical origins, the plot quickly falls into a typical fish-out-of-water tale: A man with no concept of the New York City he’s currently existing in discovers the internet; doesn’t know how to get into a cab properly; is amazed that his great-grandson owns 25 pairs of socks; takes his first sip of seltzer water; and says unwittingly offensive things. How quirky.
Based on Simon Rich’s 2013 four-part New Yorker short story “Sell Out," this running gag serves ultimately to explore what one’s ancestors would think of their progeny. Rich told Vulture that the film’s origins largely draw from his own experience as a secular Jew who has had an “unbelievably easy and privileged” life despite his predecessors being “hardscrabble Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States about 100 years ago, fleeing violence and oppression.” He figures that, if they were to meet, they’d want to beat him up out of disappointment.
This conflict is at the film’s core. The fissure of the pair’s intergenerational conflict comes to a head when Ben deems Herschel’s attempts to restore honor to the family’s grave plot impossible. (How could he let them put up a billboard advertising vanilla vodka without a fight?! The Cossacks killed his family!) A rivalry ensues, pitting cynical, millennial resignation against immigrant grit.
Herschel is devoutly religious. Unsurprisingly, he’s also not politically correct, a detail played for laughs. This becomes a problem when he goes viral for, of course, an “artisanal” pickle business. The hipster jokes in this bit feel more 2013 than 2020, but like listening to Vampire Weekend’s old albums, they still land.
Satirical in its footing, An American Pickle makes grand gestures at the world its characters inhabit but doesn’t quite build to a greater point.
At 90 minutes, it moves quickly from moment to moment. And because of its clunky pacing, there isn’t time for the characters to dwell on their strange circumstances. To put it in metaphorical terms: A key step to pickling is to first prepare the brine. Water, salt and sugar must dissolve together over heat before being poured over cucumbers and herbs. The ingredients that make up An American Pickle did not fully dissolve, producing a final flavor that, while fine, lacks zing — that piquant quality.
Though the film begins as commentary on generational guilt and divisions, it detours into commentary on various modern dilemmas — cancel culture being one of them. It’s conceivable that a conservative man from the 1920s would be the subject of online backlash if given access to Twitter and free rein to post his thoughts. But the movie spends too much time on this farce and says little more than the obvious.
The strongest moments in the film were those that explored the dichotomy between Ben, Herschel and the century of history standing between them.
Whereas Herschel embraces his Jewish identity and culture, Ben is disconnected from it. Despite their bickering, they grow an appreciation for each other, and a deeper understanding of their own motivations. Surprisingly sentimental, these scenes — looking through family photographs together, discovering tucked-away childhood drawings —make An American Pickle a charming watch, the type well-suited for a quiet weekend afternoon.
Now streaming on HBO Max.