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Review: Beyond Silly, 'An American Pickle' Tries Hard, Falls Flat

by Greg Vellante
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Aug 6, 2020
'An American Pickle'
'An American Pickle'  

"An American Pickle" knows its premise is silly. Beyond silly, even. As Herschel Greenbaum, an Ashkenazi laborer who immigrates to America in 1920 but falls into a pickle vat and is brined for 100 years, Seth Rogen handles this ludicrous plot with a confidence that boosts the absurdist effect. After a century of being in this enclosed pickle vat, Herschel is found and emerges completely unaltered from his 1920s appearance and age. Why? He was preserved perfectly by the brine. How? The film has a joke early on (which is perhaps the work's funniest gag) where it humorously passes over the scientific details, and the audience is left to experience the rest of Herschel's journey despite its oddball inception.

Where Herschel ends up going is to his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen), the only living descendent left for Herschel to connect with. They bond quite nicely at first, but Herschel soon learns that Ben's "career" isn't that fruitful (he has worked five years on a mobile app that tells you how ethical certain companies are) and a rift forms between them after a mishap ruins Ben's chances of finally being successful.

As the plot continues, "An American Pickle" digs into topics like The American Dream, fame, cancel culture, and capitalism, but it fully falls flat while attempting to do so. Herschel and Ben repeatedly undergo head-to-head conflicts and various manipulative schemes, and it grows quite weary after a while. The film certainly takes a turn after its amusing origins, and unlike Herschel, the film's form certainly isn't preserved as time passes. By the end of it all, it's a forgettable affair with a promise that's never quite reached.

Rogen's performance, however, is quite entertaining. Dual roles can be amazing in dramatic works (see Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" or David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers"), but it can often suffer in comedy (reminder that "Norbit" is a film that exists). In "An American Pickle," Rogen handles double-duty well despite the movie's numerous hiccups in momentum. Herschel, a lovable yet hugely controversial figure, is characterized by his thick beard and even thicker accent, while Ben is more similar to the schlubs Rogen has played in pictures' past. Both roles are often interesting to watch, even as they exist in a sphere of far less fascinating material.

Much like the protagonist being introduced to the confusing American universe, "An American Pickle" immerses viewers in an equally puzzling adventure. I can't quite comprehend why the filmmakers (helmed by Brandon Trost in his solo directorial debut) made the choices they made, but these decisions muddle up an 88-minute running time that feels infinitely longer than it is. What begins as a preposterous premise turns into something pedestrian and unmemorable; it's at once a satire that never skewers its targets enough and a social commentary that's filtered through a foggy lens. And no matter how hard you rub your eyes, it's simple to see that this particular pickle is far past its prime.

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