Great Britain

An American Pickle review – sweet generational comedy lacks a little bite

The British food writer and fermentation expert Thom Eagle writes that “crunch, heat – but not too much heat – sweetness and sharpness and salt” are what make a good pickle. This warm and whimsical caper about an immigrant worker who is brined for a century in a vat of pickles is sweet enough, but lacks an essential wince-inducing bite.

Based on Simon Rich’s 2013 short story Sell Out, serialised in the New Yorker, it stars Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, a “ditch-digger” in rural Poland circa 1919 who emigrates to America with his wife and lands a job in pest control at a pickle factory in Brooklyn. A freak accident sees him falling into a vat of brine; a hundred years later the barrel and a perfectly preserved Herschel are discovered. He connects, then clashes with his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen), an app developer and all-round hipster cliche.

Following the codes of the fish-out-of-water comedy subgenre, Herschel marvels at Ben’s SodaStream machine and the fact that he owns 25 pairs of socks (“You have two feet”). The orphaned Ben, on the other hand, is taken aback by his great-grandad’s fierce family loyalty and entrepreneurial streak. Discovering that his late wife’s grave sits beneath a giant billboard for vanilla vodka, a heavily accented Herschel proclaims he will “start pickle empire and make $200,000” to buy back the plot. Outraged that an organic grocery store is selling cucumbers for 90 cents a piece, he ends up foraging his ingredients from the supermarket’s bins and selling artisanal gherkins ($4 a reclaimed glass jar). His unruly beard only adds to the authenticity of his brand.

The pickles are a hit until Herschel’s cart is shut down by the city’s health and safety department. His trajectory goes viral, along with some of his unsavoury tweets, and he experiences the whiplash of fickle public opinion. Jokes about gentrification work, but attempts to parody today’s social media outrage cycle feel laboured. Elsewhere, quips about non-dairy milk alternatives and unpaid internships are already dated.

Boop Bop, the app Ben is developing, rates and ranks corporations based on how problematic they are, a kind of TripAdvisor for ethical businesses. So when Herschel’s shenanigans compromise a contract with a startup, Ben’s instinct is revenge, highlighting an apparent willingness to leave all ethics at the door. Millennial self-interest and performative liberal politics are contrasted with “authentic”, let-it-all-hang-out conservatism. It’s a simplistic critique. Still, the frequently charming Rogen brings enough of his affable, nice guy credibility to each character to ground both loose cannon Herschel and his straight man foil.

While its gags about politics are slippery, the film is surprisingly adept at handling the more substantial theme of generational guilt. “You were raised Jew! Are you not still Jew?” Herschel asks the secular Ben, curious about how he views his heritage. Indeed, the film’s prologue is a 10-minute short film about the immigrant experience in and of itself. In the fictional town of Slupsk, Herschel narrates the story of his marriage to Sarah (Sarah Snook, Shiv from HBO’s Succession) and their journey to Ellis Island. Their romance blossoms at the side of a bog, where they bond over the fact that both lost their parents to the Cossacks, and their mutual favourite colour (black). At border control they are met with antisemitic remarks.

Debut director Brandon Trost (previously a cinematographer and one of Rogen’s regular collaborators) shoots this sequence as a sepia-tinted fairytale, but struggle is baked into their American dream. Even the film’s title shrewdly suggests that America is built on the labour of immigrants.

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