An American Pickle

  • 22 Aug - 28 Aug, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
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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 cliché.

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. The orphaned Ben, on the other hand, is taken aback by his great-granddad’s fierce family loyalty and entrepreneurial streak. Discovering that his late wife’s grave sits beneath a giant billboard for alcohol, 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.

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.

Debut director Brandon Trost 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.