An immigrant worker at a pickle factory is accidentally preserved for 100 years and wakes up in modern day Brooklyn. He learns his only surviving relative is his great grandson, a computer coder who he can’t connect with.
HBO Max arrives to become one more proof of how vital streaming has been to new filmmakers and writers all around the world. An American Pickle is the very first original film released by the respective service, and it gives the opportunity to Brandon Trost (solo directorial debut) and Simon Rich (feature film screenplay debut) to demonstrate their talents. Despite my curiosity about what they could offer, my eyes were obviously focused on Seth Rogen’s double performance. Even though he’s not the greatest living actor, I always enjoy his comedic roles, most recently in Long Shot and The Lion King. Possessing a premise with tremendous potential to deliver amazing laughs, how did it go?
Well, I’m surprised by how grounded and “realistic” Trost and Rich’s approach ends up being. In the first twenty minutes, everything points to a straight-up ridiculous story where the most absurd things occur. Basically, I love every single thing until the title card shows up plus a few more minutes. Herschel’s life goals, his relationship with her lover, what leads to him getting brined for a century, the (technically brilliant) “scientific” justification that they give after he’s found out to be alive and that he didn’t age a day… Everything is ludicrous, but what would you expect from the already crazy premise?
Never forget: having the wrong expectations (unrealistic, overhyped, nonsensical) can quickly turn your experience into a nightmare. An American Pickle has an absurd narrative because it develops an absurd concept. That’s what’s so incredibly entertaining about it: the possibilities are infinite as long as the people at the helm are creative enough. This is why I feel somewhat disappointed that primarily Rich couldn’t take this story even further, both character and story-wise. In fact, as soon as the end credits started to roll, my first thought was “is it over already?”
Throughout the whole runtime, the viewers have to deal with only two characters who aren’t deeply explored. Herschel is a man out of his time, but with his impressive determination and hard-working personality, he seems to surpass every challenge thrown at him. On the other hand, Ben struggles to get his product/idea on the market, but he doesn’t seem to have the same will that his great grandfather holds. Therefore, the whole narrative is stuck on a loop of Herschel doing things right, and Ben getting jealous over it and trying to mess with his success. Each reiteration becomes less funny, less entertaining, and less plausible (I can accept most plot points, but some are indeed way too nonsensical for the world it finds itself in).
Obviously, the comedy bits are almost all linked to Herschel and, as expected, to his dated cultural knowledge. It’s a matter of time until he says something he shouldn’t, mostly stuff related to his views on religion, racism, and every sensitive subject you can think of. Some viewers might even get offended by a couple of jokes, which are precisely the ones I laughed at the hardest. Unfortunately, Rich’s screenplay doesn’t have the imagination a premise like this demands (too focused on stereotypes and easy jokes), but having in mind this is his first writing role in a feature film, it’s a good start. Trost does a pretty decent job, especially when it comes to film two characters interpreted by the same actor, so I wouldn’t mind seeing these two working together again.
Nevertheless, it all comes down to Rogen’s double performance, and he nailed it. He’s the main reason why I’m giving this movie a positive review. He’s able to dive into these characters in such a compelling manner that, at some points, I genuinely thought this film was written and directed by him. It feels like a personal project, something that I can easily picture as a Seth Rogen’s movie. He’s hilarious when he needs to be, and extremely serious when the time calls for it. Finally, I don’t look at this film as a comedy because ultimately I don’t even think it is. It’s strangely a sweet story about family and why it should matter so much to every single one of us.
All in all, An American Pickle surprisingly takes a grounded approach on the “man out of his time” concept, making the whole message about “family”, even though its premise is absolutely bonkers. The first act sets up a logically ridiculous yet hilarious story that unfortunately doesn’t quite reach its potential. Debutants Brandon Trost and Simon Rich do a reasonable job with the narrative, but Rich could have explored the main characters a bit more, having to ultimately thank Seth Rogen for such a fantastic double performance. The style of humor present in the movie will not work for everyone, but it definitely did for me, even though it lost steam throughout the runtime. Its comedy is at its best when it tackles the dated cultural restrictions in Herschel’s mind. It’s a short, fast-paced story, with a neat score by Nami Melumad (Michael Giacchino wrote the themes), that anyone can enjoy just as long as they have the right expectations.
Point Grey Pictures, Gravitational Productions, Sony Pictures, WarnerMax by Brandon Trost, Simon Rich.
Stars: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Molly Evensen, Eliot Glazer.
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