[su_dropcap size=”5″]A[/su_dropcap]n American Pickle is yet another film that takes a home run premise, bloops it to shallow centerfield, and contentedly trots to first base. So…my heart, well, it’s just a mess of confusion: Do I pat this movie on the head and award it a gold star for being mostly decent? Or, do I slap it square in the Nutter Butters™ for missing out on so many opportunities to do so much more? I know anything called An American Pickle will never get confused with something Noël Coward wrote. Still, we could’ve had a sharper satire, one where wry humor mingles with real pathos and scathing political commentary. Alas, nope. We can’t have nice things. Three stars will just have to do.
The story is very straightforward: It’s 1919, in a village of impoverished European Jews. Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) feels the thunderbolt of love when he lays eyes on Sarah (Sarah Snook). They become inseparable, and dare to dream of big things: She wants to cobble together enough money to buy her own tombstone. He desperately wants to feel the bubbly tickle of seltzer water in his mouth. Herschel and Sarah catch the boat to Ellis Island, and resolve to find their desires in New York City. He goes to work in a Brooklyn pickle factory, where he lands a Monty Python-esque gig whacking rats with a bat. Everything is hunky dory until the rats chase Herschel into the pickle vat, and he gets accidentally sealed and brined.
Cut to 100 years later. Brooklyn now stands as a monument to gentrified hipster bliss. Microbrews and tweed jackets abound. Somebody finally discovers Herschel in the pickle brine, where he has been remarkably well-preserved. He becomes the news du jour, as the world becomes disposably fascinated with this walking, talking, time capsule.
An investigation turns up Herschel’s only living relative: His great-grandson Ben (also Rogen). Despite the generational divide, the two share a Patty Duke-style resemblance to each other. They walk alike. They talk alike. They–aw, hell—you get the idea. Anyway, Ben agrees to take in Herschel, thus setting up a series of sitcom shenanigans that comprise the bulk of the movie. Do these two get on each others nerves? You can bet your fiesta nachos they do! Turns out, Ben’s bold ambitions are hamstrung by an inherent timidity. Meanwhile, ol’ Herschel’s beliefs on a host of social issues? Well, they’re a smidge outdated. Naturally, the Greenbaums bark and bicker until they discover that their common ground goes beyond simple familial obligation.
As you might guess, a movie like this floats or founders on the strength of its star. Well, Rogen keeps this story sailing a lot longer than it deserves. Both performances are surprisingly strong: His Herschel lands somewhere between Tevye and Cousin Balki, but Rogen gives him real humanity. It takes a while, but Rogen also elevates Ben above the typically fragile Instagram millennial. The script occasionally wastes both characters with cheap, clunky humor, but Rogen somehow manages to maintain interest.
Man, what this movie might have been. Within Herschel lies the potential for a monumentally tragic hero. He’s a man who outlived everyone he ever loved. All of his dreams were left to rot on the vine. And yet, Herschel is a model of perseverance, despite everything that’s been taken from him. On the flip, Ben behaves meekly, refusing to take chances with all that he’s been given. Pickle could’ve had melancholy and infinite sadness mixed into its humor. Further, Herschel is a man who missed out on World War II, rock and roll, spaceflight, the Macarena, and so much more. The script wastes too much time with topical references to social media and influencer culture, causing so many chances for comedy to sail on by.
Pickle also makes a couple of wimpy jabs at Donald Trump. Basically, Herschel is an amiable fellow, but his political and social beliefs are an abhorrent tangle of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and just about every other terrible thing you could weave into that web. I mean, he may be ignorant and anachronistic, but damned if he’s not plain-spoken! And, a successful businessman, to boot! Herschel unleashes his vitriolic drivel on Twitter, prompting a grassroots movement to put his demagoguery into higher office. This also could’ve been funny, and–unfortunately–too close to home, but the movie only swishes its toe in the water. As a target for satire, Trump is like a yam-colored piñata, temptingly twisting in the breeze. A film like this has to have the courage to dish out some ferocious whacks, or else it shouldn’t be done at all. Our current president deserves nothing less.
As the final credits rolled, I found myself <sigh>….God damn it, you know I have to say it…in a bit of a pickle. I laughed here and there. Rogen turns in one of his best performances. Those special effects have come a long way since we saw Samantha’s evil twin on Bewitched. Unfortunately, I also can’t escape the feeling a better movie is buried in here somewhere. In the end, I feel like I have to deduct points from American Pickle for all the jokes it leaves behind.
88 minutes. PG-13.