An American Pickle centers on an extraordinary feat of culinary science. Herschel Greenbaum (played by Seth Rogen), a Jewish immigrant living in 1920 New York, falls into a vat of pickles on his factory’s closing day and is left there for 100 years. When he emerges in 2020, he’s perfectly preserved if a little pungent—a sort of unfrozen caveman of the Lower East Side. A jokey, silent montage in Brandon Trost’s new film, which debuts on HBO Max today, features an expert explaining how such a thing could be possible, while Herschel narrates. “The scientist explains. His logic is good. It satisfied everyone,” Herschel tells viewers.
Viewed in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, that scene makes An American Pickle feel like an inadvertent period piece, one that depicts a blissful world in which the words of scientists are accepted by all. But it’s also an efficient joke for a fish-out-of-water film that wants to get through its plot setup as quickly as possible. Herschel Greenbaum is a man unstuck in time, a living pickle who, upon his appearance in modern-day New York, stays with his only surviving relative, a mild-mannered app developer named Ben (also played by Rogen). The comedy that follows is appropriately both salty and sweet, with plenty of acerbic jabs at our modern condition balanced by the characters’ poignant sense of loneliness.
The script, written by the humorist and Saturday Night Live alumnus Simon Rich, does its best to deepen its high-concept premise, which originated as a piece in The New Yorker. But for me the hook was enough. I, like the fictional Ben Greenbaum, am descended from Jews who fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, and I sometimes wonder what might my ancestors make of me, living in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods where they settled after arriving at Ellis Island. Herschel, who worked at the pickle factory killing rats, is astounded at the number of pairs of socks Ben owns (upwards of 25), but is less impressed by his computer-programming skills and dreams of making an app that evaluates how ethically various food products are made.
An American Pickle is rife with jokes along these lines: Herschel is amazed by some convenience of modern life (a home seltzer machine is a particular shock), but is totally nonchalant when it comes to Ben’s actual hopes and dreams. Though the pair initially bond over their physical resemblance and memories of family, Herschel’s quick temper and frustration with contemporary life tears the duo apart. Much of the film’s middle act is dominated by silly hijinks: Herschel starts a pickling business, becomes a minor internet celebrity, and eventually lands in hot water when he starts broadcasting his outdated societal views via a Twitter account. But it’s Rich’s understanding of the connection between Herschel and Ben, not their time-dilated differences, that won me over.
These characters are linked by solitude. Herschel is unmoored from his reality and mourning his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), while Ben lost his parents in a car accident and lives a rather lonely life in his well-apportioned apartment. The quietest moments, like when Herschel and Ben sit down to marvel at old photos together, make the biggest impression. The film doesn’t attempt to broach the darkest chapters of history that Herschel missed—there’s no discussion of the Holocaust, for example—but it does emphasize the sense of melancholy that its main characters share, even with their century of disconnect.
The thrust of Rich’s story, and his original New Yorker humor pieces, is simple enough. Who hasn’t held a black-and-white picture of a long-lost relative and wondered how they might feel about all the ways the world has changed? Rich sees much to admire in Herschel’s indomitable spirit and deep passion for his Jewish identity. The writer also clearly thinks that his own, deeply flawed generation could learn something from Herschel’s plain outlook on surviving in a tougher world. The most profound emotional aspect of the film is the sense that Herschel and Ben can’t escape each other, even when they’re mad at each other.
Many comedies starring actors in dual roles embrace the gimmick to let a performer take on wildly different personas. Think Eddie Murphy (and Jerry Lewis before him) playing both introvert and extrovert in The Nutty Professor, or Mike Myers being the hero and the villain in the Austin Powers series. But while Rogen gets to have some fun with his double act—Herschel is gruff and imposing, Ben sarcastic and withdrawn—so much of the power of An American Pickle revolves around their inherent similarities. What would happen if you met a long-dead relative from your past? Well, Rich has an answer: They’d be bizarre, frustrating, baffled by almost all of your life experiences—and yet they’d still be family.