Published Aug 21, 2020An American Pickle has a runtime of a little under an hour and a half, which is very short for a feature film but absurdly, almost implausibly long for a story about a man who gets brined in pickle juice in 1919 and wakes up a century later. It's a surreal goof that, predictably, director Brandon Trost stretches a little thin — but the result is more charming and touching than it frankly has any right to be.
Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is a poor labourer in the fictional Eastern European country of Schlupsk. After their village is plundered by Russian Cossacks, Herschel and his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) emigrate to Brooklyn, where he finds work at a pickle factory. After that whole brining bit you already know about, Hershel reawakens to discover that all of his loved ones are long dead — but his great grandson Ben (also played by Rogen) lives and works nearby as a struggling app developer.
Herschel spends a while fascinated with modern advancements (water seltzer machines, owning multiple pairs of shoes and socks, etc.), but it isn't long before he begins to clash with Ben. He can't wrap his head around Ben's inability to sell his app, and he hits the street to launch his own artisanal pickle business. The Williamsburg locals instantly become enamoured with Hershel's supposed authenticity, and An American Pickle briefly turns into a very tired parody of Brooklyn hipster culture that feels almost identical to Portlandia — except that show came out in 2011, and didn't seem all that fresh at the time.
There's a similarly on-the-nose passage that parodies alt-right Twitter trolls and the rise of Trump. An American Pickle has nothing particularly new to say about the way racism gets celebrated as "free speech," and even though it's a worthy argument, the gag feels feels played out — plus, how are you supposed to parody Trump when he's already turning modern life into a horrifying joke?
Having sufficiently lowered expectations by brining the lowest hanging comedic fruit, An American Pickle pulls off a very deft sleight of hand when the whole thing comes to a surprisingly touching conclusion. In particular, some moments where Ben embraces his Jewish heritage and honours his family are genuinely poignant. Rogen monopolizes the screen more than Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and even when the jokes don't always land, he's magnetic enough to keep things consistently entertaining.
So while the film begins a bit like a not-quite-as-good Borat, with its wacky accents and send-ups of American racism, it ends up a little more like a not-quite-as-good Jojo Rabbit: a slapstick parody that turns into a heartfelt lesson about family and tolerance. (HBO Max)