There’s something irresistibly charming about all the stories that Simon Rich pens. Not just because it’s hilarious or bizarre, but also because of how full of cultural and social commentary it is. In What in God’s Name — Rich’s 2012 fantasy comedy novel that became the source for TBS’s underrated show Miracle Workers — Rich argues that what makes the world not worth saving is our own selfish actions. Then in his short story Revolution, Rich shows us that perhaps we really don’t have free-will in this world and that we can’t entirely escape the fate that’s been given to us by the powers-that-be. Yes, this may sound very pessimistic, and understandably so. But Rich’s main goal has never been about exposing how bleak the world that we live in, rather it’s always been about finding humor, levity, and a little bit of hope even from a very hopeless place.
This notion can never be truer than in An American Pickle, HBO Max’s first original feature film directed by Brandon Trost and written by Rich himself based on his New Yorker novella called Sell Out. On the surface, the story looks very simple, if a little eccentric: a Jewish immigrant from Slupsk named Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is working at a pickle factory in Brooklyn. Then one day, he falls into a vat of brine and perfectly preserved for 100 years meaning that his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), and son, David (Geoffrey Cantor), have both died when he awakens. The only living relative that Herschel has at the moment is his great-grandson, a startup founder named Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen), which means that he has no choice but to live with him.
Throughout the first half of the movie, we follow Herschel as he’s struggling to fit in and navigate himself in a modern world, one where everything is different than the last time he saw it. The Brooklyn that he knew of before has now changed; the belief and ideology that he held on to previously have slowly vanished too. Herschel, however, refuses to acclimate, and instead keeps forcing his dated, traditional worldview in this modern era. He thinks that every problem can still be solved with violence, and he also assumes that everyone, including Ben, is still religious. And of course, it slowly infuriates the hell out of Ben, who himself is facing some personal issues.
All of these may seem like basic fish-out-of-water (or, should I say fish-out-of-brine) stuff that we’ve seen countless times before from similar movies like Borat, Look Who’s Back, or Idiocracy, and at times, An American Pickle does lean heavily on the cliche of its concept. But it’s also at this moment where Rich’s gift as a satirical writer is at its peak, filling his script with sharp criticism against the absurdity of modern urbanity without going too far at being caustic or condescending. In fact, what’s fascinating about Rich’s writing skill is his ability to maintain the outlandish and comedic tone of the movie even when the script is blatantly mocking stuff like Yelp, cancel culture, and unpaid internships.
Rich, however, isn’t just making fun of all the hip, millennial lifestyle that the whole world is obsessed with right now. He also offers insightful perspectives and a reminder about the importance of finding a balance between all sides of life, especially between modernity and tradition. Of course, by providing these two sides of the topic the movie wants to satirize in the first place could risk An American Pickle of losing its bite, and some parts do indeed feel a little too saccharine for its own good. But Rich has never been a writer who aims to make a political stance, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that what he mainly presents here is the hopefulness of the subject, which in the end, makes the movie all the more easily accessible.
While the first half of the movie stands very strong, the second half sadly can’t retain that same level of quality, as it’s too busy focusing on the big fight between Herschel and Ben without making it as well-established as the movie’s social commentary. And to make things a little more frustrating, the movie also fails to come up with a compelling resolution, and instead just rushes everything to an inert conclusion in the end. If only An American Pickle has more time to develop its main conflict without sidelining the satirical element and maintain the enjoyable pace of its first half, without a doubt it would be twice as strong as it is now.
Still, even when things get weaker toward its final moments, An American Pickle is not by any means a bad movie. Sure, it’s flawed and lacking a little seasoning, but there’s also a lot of good stuff in it — from Trost’s solid direction and Rich’s well-written script to Rogen’s phenomenally charming dual performances as Ben and Herschel, An American Pickle, in the end, still has enough to juice to make it worth your time. Just don’t expect a lot though.
Maybe being pickled until the pandemic’s over is not a bad idea…
Directed by: Brandon Trost
Written by: Simon Rich
Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Sean Whalen