Monday, August 3, 2020

Movie with Abe: An American Pickle

An American Pickle
Directed by Brandon Trost
Released August 6, 2020 (HBO Max)

A tremendous amount can change in a short period of time. Technological innovations, new discoveries, and political change can make one decade almost unrecognizable from the one that came before it. It’s not usually easy for those accustomed to one way of life to eagerly adopt to new concepts, and that’s evident in the way that many senior citizens today utilize smartphones and computers that look nothing like what they knew during their childhood. There’s a way to approach progress and feel open to it without leaving the past behind, but that’s often a struggle, particularly if the new normal feels like it’s being presented as a replacement of what came before it.

Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) works as a ditch-digger in Europe in 1919, where he meets his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook). Their blissful wedding is interrupted by a Cossack massacre of their town, leading them to immigrate to the United States, where they dream of luxuries like drinking seltzer while Herschel tries to make ends meet killing rats in a pickle factory. When he falls into a giant vat and is sealed in, he is preserved in the brine until someone stumbles upon the abandoned factory one hundred years later. He meets his only living relative, his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen), who eagerly shows him what the twenty-first century has to offer. Their different approaches to religion and hard work lead to a rift that causes the two Greenbaums to compete for success and victory at any cost.

This film’s concept is decidedly fantastical, presuming that a person could literally be pickled and emerge completely unaged and the same after a century. Deciding that the premise can be believed sets up a decently stirring and thought-provoking examination of values and the appreciation of small wonders. Given that Rogen is a comedian and this film is written by Simon Rich, creator of “Man Seeking Woman” and “Miracle Workers,” drama isn’t the goal. This experience is best compared to an Adam Sandler movie like “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” one that sometimes reaches the level of smart parody but gives in too much to the impulse for slapstick humor. Its mimicry of the Eastern European lifestyle through Herschel feels authentic, though its presentation of certain elements of Herschel’s personality, like his Judaism, come off as disappointingly selective and surface-level.

Rogen is doing double duty here as the two Greenbaums, and he’s certainly having a good time. He does a spectacular job of not breaking character as Herschel, who sets out to start a successful pickle business despite having no knowledge of the existence of health codes or social media platforms. Ben, in comparison, is much less engaging, tampered down by Rogen to make him feel substantially different. There are plenty of laughs to be found in this journey, though this film resounds more when it abandons silliness for substance, which does happen on occasion throughout its ninety-minute runtime.


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