Film Review: An American Pickle

an american pickle indexAfter recently enjoying the second season of the Daniel Radcliffe starring Miracle Workers I decided to check out creator Simon Rich’s other work and that led me to becoming rather enamoured with the man. His previous series, Man Seeking Woman, is an absolute delight, the one episode of The Simpsons he wrote is one of the best in decades, and his novel Elliot Allagash is a little lightweight but still extremely funny.

After that I checked out his short story collection Spoiled Brats and adored it and then some (with one tale from the perspective of a school hamster being particularly sublime), and which just happens to be where “Sell Out”, the source story for An American Pickle can be found. It’s almost novella length and tells the story of Simon Rich in the present day, with lots of mockery of his script doctor work and general pomposity, though it takes a fantastical bent as one day his great grandfather Herschel comes back to life after having fallen in to and sealed in a pickle vat (almost) a century beforehand.

Even though I only read it a couple of months ago I had no idea a movie was being made of it at the time, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover the fact, even though Seth Rogen was cast as both leads and he’s not a man I have a lot of time for, at least when he’s playing stoner types who laugh annoyingly a lot. Plot wise it’s initially mostly faithful to the original story too, though a few names have been changed and Simon Rich is now Ben Greenbaum and instead of a film script writer / doctor he’s a freelance mobile app developer, while one character is largely absent. Due to the changes the satire of Hollywood is sadly missing but it’s replaced by some fun mockery of the software world, and it pushes the plot forward as after being arrested with Herschel after he gets in to a fight, Ben can’t sell his ethical rating app “Boop Bop” and they fall out.

It starts off as a culture clash / fish out of water affair as Herschel comes to terms with the 21st century, but it soon becomes an exploration of cancellation culture, as Herschel soon learns that while you can be incredibly offensive about all manner of things, the one thing you can’t do is attack Christianity. This part of the film contains some very smart, very funny satire of the media, and social media, and the way people reinterpret what others say to fit their beliefs, and the comparison to Trump’s idiocy is present without it being too obvious.

As fond as I am of the short story, it wouldn’t really work as a direct transfer to the screen as the narrative is quite slight, but the changes made are largely all for the better, and allow Rich to examine the nature of America in a far wider capacity. The short story largely concerns itself with the notion of success / the American Dream and what that means to various individuals, along with briefly touching on identity, race and religion, but the film expands upon this after a slightly shaky middle section and becomes a far more complex work.

An American Pickle has received fairly middling reviews but I’m surprised by this and rate it more highly than many as it’s consistently funny and intriguing material, with  Herschel’s bluntness about existence being constantly amusing, and there’s a lot of funny moments derived from his experiences of the incredible hardships of the world in 1919, and how so much has changed over the last hundred years. It’s perhaps not quite as critical of the younger Greenbaum as the original story was but that’s replaced with a lot of sharp insight of his experiences, and it also becomes smarter and funnier in the second half as it leaves the pickle business behind and sees Herschel become a countrywide success, and its examination of how the world responds to unpleasant opinions is a fascinating one.

The film also looks rather beautiful, especially for a low budget independent movie set mostly in just one city, and Rogen is surprisingly superb here. There’s a couple of supporting characters but he largely carries the movie, and he does so with aplomb, creating two very different but very likeable characters who aren’t akin to anything he’s portrayed before. The ending to the film might be a bit rushed but apart from that it’s a strong work, an insightful, intelligent and very funny comedy that has a lot to say but manages to do so while avoiding ever feeling preachy.

★★★★

Alex Finch.
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