Friday, August 7, 2020


An American Pickle is perched on a premise of such delicate whimsy that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under the slightest weight. And yet it works because star Seth Rogen takes it just seriously enough, lending it a gentle humane grace in the midst of flimsy conceits. The idea is this: in 1919, Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant to New York City stuck living a hardscrabble Upton Sinclair life as a rat catcher in a pickle factory, falls, unnoticed, into a vat of brine. The factory is, coincidentally, condemned that day. In 2019, the vat is finally opened, and out pops the perfectly preserved man. The movie doesn’t care about why that happens; it winks at you, so you know the intent is for a fable and goes with that. It sets up what could be mere broad fish-out-of-water comedy, with the hardy, boisterous, bearded fellow, more used to manual labor and with memory of fleeing Cossacks still fresh in his mind, suddenly confronted by modern Brooklyn. (In fact, one similarly beardy hipster does compliment his style and asks if his clothes are vintage.) But what happens is slightly less schtick than you’d expect, as the film zigs into something slower, quieter, and low-key. The man is released into the care of his great grandson — his only living relative, and spitting image. 

Rogen does good work differentiating these performances, and finding warmly humorous rhythms in the disjunction between the two. One man’s bursting gregariously with a chewy eastern European accent and taking up space with ease. The other is seemingly shrinking behind his glasses and folding into himself with unexamined grief. The modern Rogen is a shy freelance app developer, lonely without any living relatives, comfortable in a small life. Good thing the old Rogen is similarly grieved, having lost his beloved wife (Sarah Snook) decades before he awoke, and missed his son’s and grandson’s lives entirely. The last living Greenbaums are now bridging a century together, and maybe, just maybe, can help each other move on. The screenplay by Simon Rich — as befits a humorist of his sort — has this bittersweet center, and then proceeds to be variations on a theme. What if the two Rogens got along? What if they didn’t? And what would social media think? The movie cycles between those three scenarios, each quickly developed and sometimes thinly sketched, but the central dual role enlivens the proceedings each step of the way. Director Brandon Trost—usually working as a cinematographer, many times for films with a Rogen connection—knows not to linger on the absurdities. This is somehow a soft-palate, quietly staged movie with a viral pickle business, a literal Twitter mob, and a circus of a court room scene within its modest framework, but always keeps the focus on the connection the men share. It’s ultimately a story of how comfortable the modern man’s life is, and yet how empty. He just needed to reconnect with his roots (religion, relatives) to bring new fulfillment to his days. And that strong idea, embodied by a fine performer, is just enough to hold the whole odd little movie together.

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