An American Pickle (2020) offers us a sweet and sour look at family.
It is with a fine sense of historical irony that I note my first trip back into the cinema was to see a movie owned and distributed by a streaming service. Originally set to be released by Sony, it eventually fell to HBO Max to open the jar, springing for a theatrical release in overseas markets while it streamed exclusively in the States. So, here we are, back to the cinema at last. It’s pickle Seth!
When Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) falls into a vat of pickled cucumbers moments before the factory is condemned, he ends up perfectly preserved and, when accidentally revived some one hundred years later, paired up with his last living descendent Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen).
One of Seth Rogen’s most potent cinematic traits is his innate lovability, making his characters easy to root for. That presents something of a challenge here, of course, because “An American Pickle” offers us Seth vs Seth – so who to root for. Interestingly, the film isn’t interested in making it an easy choice. Both Herschel and Ben are flawed, cantankerous, petty assholes and you’ll find your sympathies oscillating between either – and occasionally neither – as this fable of family and heritage plays out. It’s Seth Rogen’s most mature work to date and he delivers not one but two authentically different performances, full of nuance and pathos. There’s humour there, for sure, but it won’t be the kind you might be expecting from Rogen’s past works. This is a thoughtful, introspective work and its all the more impressive for it.
It’s all the more remarkable because it uses such a ridiculous gimmick to set up its gentle culture-clash story, a ridiculousness the film both acknowledges and dismisses in a wonderful wink to the fourth wall. It gently satirises hipster culture and America’s willingness to embrace and elevate people to celebrity status, overlooking their problematic sides as long as they align with whatever narrow viewpoint matters most but it’s mostly a story about family and the weight of living up to their expectations