An American Pickle
Seth Rogen, Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook
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…a slight delight…
Joining a small sub-genre of ersatz time travel flicks about people-from-the-past-who-are-frozen-and-then-wake-up-in-the-present (Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, Idiocracy, Captain America: The First Avenger), An American Pickle is a slight delight in what is the perennial bummer of the COVID era. Interestingly, the film – which was made for the US streaming service HBO Max – may not even have made it into cinemas if it wasn’t for coronavirus, so the pandemic might be responsible for a few miniscule positives after all. That said, this is certainly no unheralded masterpiece, but it does offer plenty of laughs and some good vibes, and for that we should be thankful.
Seth Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a destitute Eastern European immigrant who comes to America in search of a better life in the early twentieth century, but ends up in a brining factory beating rats to death with a baseball bat. Just before the factory is set to be condemned, Herschel falls into a vat of brine, and remains there undiscovered until 2020. Awoken from his salty slumber in perfect health, Herschel is, of course, a man out of time, and his views and ideals don’t exactly fit in with what’s now happening in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. His only contact with this not-so-brave-new-world is Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen again), a goofy young app designer with few family ties and no real bonds to his past. To say that their relationship becomes somewhat fraught would be an understatement.
Directed with casual assurance by veteran cinematographer turned debut feature filmmaker Brandon Trost (who has shot many Rogen-connected projects, like The Disaster Artist, The Interview, Bad Neighbours and This Is The End, along with many others), An American Pickle is based on a short story by Simon Rich (who also adapts), and its slim origins show through. The narrative lacks complexity, and the absence of any supporting characters with real depth is occasionally off-putting. Seth Rogen, however, is exceptional as both Herschel and Ben, differentiating them with aplomb, and finding their comic beats with his usual blustery charm. Herschel’s man-out-of-time confusion is mined for all it’s worth, while the scientific explanation for his preservation is glossed over hilariously. The fish-out-of-water jokes are certainly very funny, but the most laughs are actually to be had in the film’s bleak Eastern European opening sequence, where Herschel and the love of his life (Aussie legend Sarah Snook, who has not nearly enough screen time but makes it count with a very, very amusing performance) evade marauding Cossacks and live a squalid life of abject misery. It resounds with Mel Brooks-meets-early-Woody-Allen black humour, and while the rest of the film doesn’t quite match the opening, An American Pickle does bring the laughs in a pretty big way.