Herschel Greenbaum is a stranger in a strange land when he wakes up in New York City circa 2019. Well, not an entirely strange land. A couple of generations back, he knew the place pretty well as an immigrant struggling to make it in the new world. But things have changed since 1919, when he, well, I won’t spoil how he leapt forward by a century.
I will say that the way this miraculous event is explained by scientists is one of the highlights of An American Pickle. Directed by Brandon Trost and adapted by Simon Rich from his New Yorker-published novella Sell Out, the film stars Seth Rogen as both Herschel and his great-grandson, Ben.
Ben, an app developer with whatever the app equivalent of writer’s block is called, is Herschel’s only living relative and, at least initially, becomes his concierge to the wonders of contemporary life. These include iPads, home seltzer makers and motorized scooters.
Up to this point, the film wobbles but never falls. Early on, a fable-like tone is well established — kind of a welterweight Sholem Aleichem with a slightly darkened edge. The jokes in the old country, where Herschel is a ditch digger with success aspirations, tend toward the deadpan with a dash of absurdity and that would be fine if that tone continued for the rest of the film. But once they Rip Van Winkle the poor guy into the contemporary world, Trost and Rich don’t demonstrate the kind of commitment needed for a unified creation.
Instead, they force conflict that leads to a falling out between the two. You see, Herschel gets angry about a vodka billboard near his family cemetery plot and that leads to Ben losing a deal on an app that assesses products for the ethics of the companies that make them. Really.
This leads to a further series of plot developments that not only disregard any sense of how long things actually would take to happen but reveal both Ben and Herschel as selfish jerks. Given the duo’s inevitable reconciliation in the third act, this doesn’t seem to be the way the film wants us to think of them, but it doesn’t give us much choice. An American Pickle already asks us to believe one absurd premise. It doesn’t need to pile them on. Too much brine in this pickle jar ends up obscuring the good stuff.
That good stuff includes such solid work on the doubling that it’s easy to forget that they are both Rogen. Plenty of throwaway lines (including every bit of a mid-credit scene of the two watching Yentl) are delightful and unexpected. And while there isn’t much in the way of a supporting cast, Sarah Snook delivers so well as Herschel’s wife that I was hoping she, too, would find a way into the future.
But this is really a two-person one-man show. And it could have been a small classic if it didn’t try to add too many ingredients. Like Herschel’s pickles, the basic ingredients worked just fine. I’m not quite sour on An American Pickle, but with a lot less plot, I might have plotzed.