- Dir: Brandon Trost. Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccome, Molly Evensen, Eliot Glazer, Kalen Allen. Cert 12A, 90 mins
As the first studio film to be released theatrically in five months, An American Pickle arrives at crunch time. One month into the re-opening phase, attendance levels at British cinemas are around five per cent of last August’s, and this Warner Bros comedy, the solo directorial debut of cinematographer Brandon Trost, seems unlikely to revive the box office single-handed. But it’ll do until the revival comes.
Adapted by the young comic writer Simon Rich from his terrific short story Sell Out, this is a wittily conceived fish-out-of-water comedy with a premise sublimely stupid enough to stand with anything in the genre’s 1980s heyday, from Coming to America to Crocodile Dundee. It opens in the bleak 1910s, when Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a hardy, shaggy-faced Polish Jew, migrates to the United States and takes a job at a pickle-brining factory in Brooklyn, New York, where one day he is accidentally sealed inside a vat mere seconds before the place is condemned.
One century later, he’s discovered, perfectly preserved, and decanted into the present – and while his beloved wife (Sarah Snook) is long dead, his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen) still lives in the same borough. Naturally, Herschel is excited to see just how high up the ladder the Greenbaum bloodline has managed to haul itself in his absence, but alas, it’s about two rungs, tops. Ben – the very embodiment of Herschel’s American Dream-chasing immigrant ambition – is a largely directionless 30-something hipster, who has spent the last five years of his life tinkering with an ethical grocery shopping app called BoopBop. He’s going to launch it soon, honest: he just has to get the colour of the logo right first.
Ben’s awful non-career is what dismays Herschel the most about his descendant, although his total lack of interest in his Jewish heritage comes a close second. The contents of his refrigerator are probably third. “I’ve got macadamia milk, cashew milk, pea milk – they’re milking peas now,” the younger Greenbaum says, clearly impressed, while his elder looks on, perplexed.
It soon becomes clear where this is going, and that is intentionally part of the fun here: in reworking his own story for the screen, Rich has planed down a gnarled and offbeat tale into something far smoother. Herschel might have arrived in the present with nothing but his rugged workwear, but his authenticity is priceless.
That means Brooklyn immediately takes him to its heart along with his pickles, which these days qualify as artisanal, and are made to a recipe that can only be described as hair-raisingly unhygienic. Meanwhile, Ben keeps clicking away in obscurity at his desk, and a clash of generational values breaks out in which both sides land some satisfying punches – though true to the genre’s conventions, the film proves to be small-c conservative at heart.
Ben might lack his great-grandfather’s bloody-minded drive, but he is able to stealthily lay down some very modern rakes for Herschel to step on, one of which is encouraging him to open a Twitter account. After sharing some, ahem, early 20th century views about women, homosexuals and the disabled, Herschel is torn down by cancel culture then hoiked aloft as a free-speech martyr, though he soon learns that one subject – the Christian faith – is considered off-limits by both halves of the American political divide.
Rogen is good in both roles, playing each character broad while stopping just short of caricature, even though a handful of Herschel’s lines feel a bit Diet Borat. The various visual and staging techniques that allow Rogen to act opposite himself are invisible, and the film delivers consistent amusement.
But you only sense an attempt to reach for something more in a thoughtful coda that turns the story’s focus to Ben’s threadbare connection with his own ethnic roots. There is the whisper of a suggestion that Ben is quietly aware that even 100 years after his ancestors were massacred by Cossacks, his Jewishness is something that has to be sanitised, if not downright minimised, in order to get along in modern western society. (This is surely the real American Pickle of the title, and one grimly borne out by the recent resurgence in anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.)
A bolder, spikier film might have really sunk its teeth into this. Trost, Rich and Rogen’s is content to give this vinegary subject an exploratory nibble, and hope that cinema-goers are prompted to chew a little more for themselves.
In cinemas from Friday