Movie Review: An American Pickle

When I was a kid, there was a series on TV called THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS. Starring Monte Markham and Arthur O’Connell, the high-concept show was about a gold miner (played by Markham) in 1900 Alaska who gets frozen in suspended animation for 67 years. After he is found and thawed out, the government tracks down his son (played by O’Connell) and hijinks ensue as the young-old man adjusts to the modern world. Oh, and he just happens to be the spitting image of his grandson (also played by Markham). The premise quickly ran out of steam though, and the show was cancelled after just one season. In 2013, The New Yorker ran a four-part series entitled “Sell Out” that has a somewhat similar, fish-out-of-water premise. The novella centers around 27-year-old Herschel Rich, a turn of the 20th century immigrant to Brooklyn, NY from the Polish shtetl of Slupsk, who falls into a vat of pickle brine and is found alive and perfectly preserved 100 years later. After he’s introduced to his 27-year-old great-great-grandson, Simon Rich, who is a script doctor for Hollywood, Herschel has to navigate his new life in a new world with a family member who is less than happy to have him around. Not coincidentally, the novella’s author is SNL writer Simon Rich, who is also known around Hollywood as a script doctor.

Seven years after Rich’s novella was published, AN AMERICAN PICKLE has emerged and stars Seth Rogen (THE LION KING; THE DISASTER ARTIST; STEVE JOBS; THE INTERVIEW), who plays not just Herschel (now surnamed) Greenbaum but his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum as well. Here, Ben is a software developer hoping to sell his socially conscious crowd-sourcing app for big bucks when Herschel arrives on the scene. Arguably even more of a complete schmuck than the fictional Simon, Ben repeatedly sabotages Herschel’s up-and-coming success as a hipster pickle entrepreneur.

Rich wrote the screenplay, updating his novella with such au courant topics as politically incorrect language and the cancel culture that often ensues. Unlike Roseanne Barr and Nick Cannon, who both lost their TV shows after saying things that they really shouldn’t have said, Herschel is only saying what was the norm a hundred years ago. I think back at some of the things my grandparents (both immigrants from a Polish shtetl as well) said and I cringe. I didn’t get angry with them though. I just told them that we don’t say those things anymore. Rich may be saying that the politically correct among us have been too quick to react and perhaps we need to cut these people some slack. I would argue though that the famous and not-so-famous people who are being hauled on the carpet these days for their words and actions know better, so they should do better.

But that’s not the biggest problem I have with this story. At its core, AN AMERICAN PICKLE is about assimilation. Three generations after Herschel left the Old Country behind for a new life in Amerikeh, his sole descendant is a Jew By Birth Only. Ben doesn’t know any mamaloshen except for a handful of words that are all euphemisms for “penis”, and his nexus to his people and the Jewish community consists of enjoying a bagel with a schmear. I get that and I see it in my American and even some of my Canadian cousins, but the story fails when Ben goes to Schlupsk (a “ch” has been added in the movie for comedic effect, I suppose) and discovers Judaism. Perhaps Rich is so far removed from his own Jewish roots that he’s never heard of the Holocaust. Jewish shtetls, where synagogues are perfectly preserved like Disneyland attractions and tended to by a handful of bearded old men who go there every day to pray, don’t exist anymore. I think it’s wonderful that rabbis are teaching Nick Cannon and others about Judaism, but they may need to teach young Jews about it too.

Back to the film, before I knew what the story was about, I thought that Rogen shouldn’t have played both parts and I opined to friends that someone like Billy Crystal would have made for a good Herschel. Now, having seen the film, I think that Rogen shouldn’t have played Ben. Someone like Jay Baruchel (THIS IS THE END) could have worked well if it weren’t for the film’s ridiculously weak third act that required one actor to play both parts. But, as a certain president recently said, it “is what it is”, and Rogen does an okay job as both Herschel and Ben. Sarah Snook (THE GLASS CASTLE; THE DRESSMAKER; STEVE JOBS; HOLDING THE MAN) plays Herschel’s wife Sarah and does a good work (even with her goyishe punim) in the few minutes that she’s on screen.

Even with its shortcomings, AN AMERICAN PICKLE is still reasonably entertaining. It’s available now on HBO Max. And, by the way, as someone who regularly makes his own pickles, I can tell you that you need more than cucumbers, salt and water. At least the literary Herschel knows what the correct ingredients are.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, August 14th, 8:30 am HK time!

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: An American Pickle

  1. And I have a book on my shelf called The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern. The Rabbi fell into a river somewhere in Poland (where else?), gets frozen and is kept in that state for who knows how long. Chapter 1 is 1999 in Memphis, Tennessee. Chapter 2 is 1889 in Poland. There are probably many more books and stories like this out there. I have no memory of the TV series or the movie. Mamele

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