Heavy-handed satire and schmaltz: American Pickle reviewed

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

American Pickle

12A, Selected cinemas

American Pickle is a comedy based on a short story by Simon Rich, originally published in the New Yorker, and I was sold on the synopsis alone: ‘An eastern European Jew falls into a vat of pickles and is brined for 100 years before emerging in modern-day Brooklyn.’

It’ll be a fish-out-of-water film like Crocodile Dundee, I thought. But more Jewish. And it felt like I’d been waiting all my life for a film like Crocodile Dundee, but more Jewish. In fact, where have the more Jewish versions of Crocodile Dundeebeen until now?

But. While there are a few decent jokes the conceit can’t, alas, sustain the running time and eventually it all falls away into heavy-handed satire and then workaday schmaltz. That is schmaltz of the sentimental kind rather than the schmaltz that is rendered chicken fat which my own grandmother used to serve (on bread, like dripping) and which you would never call workaday. Not if you valued your life.

With a screenplay by Rich and directed by Brandon Trost, and with a theatrical release in the UK, if you dare, the film stars Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, who, at the outset, is a ditch-digger living in Slupsk in 1919 and courting Sarah (played by Sarah Snook: Shiv from Succession!). He loves her very much because ‘she has all her own teeth, top and bottom’ and also because, ‘We have so much in common. Her parents murdered by Cossacks. My parents murdered by Cossacks.’ They marry but then the Cossacks (‘those Jew-hungry maniacs’) burn down their village so they take the boat to New York where he finds a job in the Brooklyn pickle factory, falls into a vat on the day the factory closes for good, and that’s him done for a century, until some kids turn up to knock the lid off.

You do think: an entire factory left un-redeveloped for 100 years? It’s prime real estate, isn’t it? But then you un-think it because therein madness lies, and also we’re better than that and know when not to be too literal minded. (Don’t we?)

Herschel emerges perfectly preserved and, once we’ve sidestepped the science, albeit quite elegantly — fair play — he’s passed over to his one living relative, great grandson Ben, also played by Rogen. But this one doesn’t have a beard or The Accent. Still, you’d think Herschel and Ben would look at each other and freak out, given that they are otherwise identical, but they don’t, and now I regret bringing that up, as we’re better than that. (Aren’t we?)

Initially, there are some lovely fish-out-of… brine?… gags. Here’s Ben explaining modern-day milk options: ‘I’ve got soya milk. I’ve got almond milk. I’ve got pea milk. They’re milking peas. They’re milking everything now.’ Herschel is shocked to see an interracial couple on the street. ‘Yeah. Totally cool now. In parts of the country,’ he’s told.

There are also some decent gags involving taxis and David Bowie and interns but then the narrative turns its attention to rivalry between the two as Ben, an unsuccessful app developer, becomes jealous of Herschel’s thriving artisan pickle business. So the jokes fall away as they try to scupper each other.

Trouble is, they become more and more unlikable and outlandish in the process. There’s also a lengthy and lumbering detour around cancel culture as we head towards an ending that is pure schmaltz. It all feels quite mechanical, lacking the heart it professes to be about. Plus I couldn’t help wondering if anyone has ever felt as if they’ve been waiting all their lives for a film starring two Seth Rogens — two! When one is usually more than enough! — so just thought I’d put that out there. Because I’m definitely not better than that. Sadly.

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