Family is weird. No matter what the dynamic of your family looks like, or how different it may appear from mine, every family has its quirks and differences. Just think about the conversations that take place over holiday dinners and annual family gatherings, especially when multiple generations are involved. The Millennials and Gen Z-ers think themselves the smartest and most emotionally evolved of the group, scoffing at the casual racism and antiquated beliefs of their elders. Meanwhile, the Boomers and Gen-X folk at the table taunt their kids and grandkids about how they don't have a work ethic to speak of, and how morals and degrees can't make up for a hands-on 9-to-5. As much as some may not want to hear it, there's a bit of truth to both sentiments, a position that An American Pickle takes with humor, empathy, and a whole lot of salt.
Like family, An American Pickle is weird, but that's in no way a bad thing. The film, directed by Brandon Trost and written by Simon Rich, follows a Jewish immigrant named Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) who arrives in New York City to pursue the American dream in 1919. While working at his less-than-glamorous job at the pickle factory, Herschel accidentally falls into a vat of pickle brine (in a sequence that weirdly plays out like a Joker origin story), where he remains for 100 years due to the factory closing down. Herschel is woken up a century later and introduced to his only living descendant, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), who doesn't remotely live up to the expectations Herschel had envisioned for his future family.
Ben is an app developer, a job that makes total sense to us in 2020 but couldn't be more baffling for a man from the 1910s. Ben wants to make a difference in the world with an app that gives companies a score based on their ecological sustainability, but he has spent five years sitting on the idea, trying to perfect the logo while selling himself short on the quality of the product. Herschel, however, is all about productivity and hard work. "Who cares about this logo?" His straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is attitude is abrasive and polarizing, but it quickly breeds a successful pickle business, while Ben's patience and forward-thinking mentality cause his app to fall by the wayside. This creates a fierce rivalry between the two men, and utter insanity ensues.
An American Pickle gets a lot stranger, and a lot darker, than you might expect. What seems to be a heart-warming tale about two relatives from different centuries rooming together in Brooklyn quickly spirals into a war of jealousy and deceit. Ben will sabotage Herschel's business by introducing him to Twitter, knowing his great-grandfather will share his horrible and outdated beliefs about women and Christianity. Herschel, on the other hand, does everything in his power to shove old-school success in Ben's face.
This film is downright mean at times, and there's a lot of humor to be found in that. But there's a lot of heart at its core, too. Rich delivers a script that tightropes quite a few themes, none more so than the one between the darkness and beauty of our own humanity. Let's be honest, though; I'd expect nothing less from the writer behind Man Seeking Woman and Inside Out, two eerily similar projects that couldn't seem more different on the surface.
What pulls it all together is Rogen's dual performance as Ben and Herschel. He gets the opportunity for the zany slapstickery and dry one-liners that made him a household name in the first place, but he also gets the chance to really dive in to a couple of complex characters. Ben is sincere and earnest, while Herschel is confident and charming, despite his less-than-desirable qualities. It's easy to like both men in lieu of their faults. They're relatable in a way that's wholly and uniquely Rogen.
An American Pickle is a weird movie, but it's the kind of weird that you enjoy spending time with. Its charm far outweighs its shortcomings, and its swing-for-the-fences approach makes it stand out in a surprisingly crowded streaming slate.
Rating: 4 out of 5
An American Pickle will debut exclusively on HBO Max on August 6th.