Sorry for that title. It was that or something alliterative about Herschel being briny and Ben being whiny.
Warning: if you don’t want your pickles spoiled look away now as I’m going to tell you what happens.
I mentioned in my review that An American Pickle is – in part – saying that we haven’t changed that much over 100 years. This is made abundantly clear near the very end when the two Greenbaums effectively swap places (and Herschel gets his own back in a big way).
The two men are identical not just in looks but also personality. Both are hot-headed and act on impulse, then refuse to back down. Both hold grudges (for 100 years in Herschel’s case). It takes them a long time, and thousands of miles, to get to the stage where they can build on the good that connects them.
Early on, Ben pitches an old school friend, now a venture capitalist, for investment in his ethical app, BoopBop. It falls apart when the man discovers Ben and Herschel were arrested for attacking the men putting up the vodka billboard – Ben’s friend thinks a violent criminal promoting an ethical app won’t work. (Ha! Of course it would. And in fact Ben investigates that later.)
Ben refuses to go into the pickle business with Herschel, and they part on terrible terms. As Ben sees his great grandfather’s business succeed, seemingly overnight, he secretly reports Herschel to the health and safety inspectorate, who close him down and issue huge fines. Herschel is quickly back in business with a load of interns working for free; soon he has them tidying up the grave plot and, once it is paid off, chopping down the billboard.
Ben’s bitterness resurfaces when he discovers his financier friend is planning to invest in Herschel’s pickle business. Ben encourages Herschel to go onto Twitter and be his unrestrained self; that, Ben claims, is what Twitter users like to see. Herschel’s tweets result in a shocked backlash and a demonstration against him outside his shack in the park.
Herschel is still seen as a breath of fresh air to some though. He’s mobbed by fans, is invited to speak at a “a friendly debate” with a feminist about the role of women, and is interviewed on TV.
But Ben continues to try to get Herschel to say terrible things, until even those supporters desert him.
Herschel is then threatened with deportation because his immigration documentation from the 19th century has gone missing.
Herschel and Ben meet up and Herschel tells his great grandson that he wants to escape to Canada. Ben agrees to help him to the border; they are within sight of it in the woods, and getting on well, when Ben admits it was he who reported Herschel and sabotaged the pickle business.
Instead of the generous acceptance of his apology that Ben is expecting, Herschel punches him in the face and knocks him out. With two border police after him Herschel runs off, and shaves off his beard, before pretending to the guards that he is Ben, and directing them to the real Ben who is arrested.
Despite Ben’s lawyer pleading in court that the man before them is not Herschel, he’s deported to Schlupsk. The village is still muddy and grey, and Ben – cold and unable to speak the language – is directed into the village synagogue for help. There, the non-religious Ben is asked to join in the recital of the Mourner’s Kaddish, or Prayer for the Dead, as they need ten Jewish men. This is the ceremony Ben had refused to take part in when Herschel wanted them to say the prayers to honour Sarah, his son Mort, and Ben’s deceased parents David and Susan. This time, out of his comfort zone, scared and lonely, he agrees, though reluctantly at first.
Back in Brooklyn, Herschel belatedly discovers Ben is indeed honouring his parents where he finds a drawing Ben did of his family during his childhood. His parents have Boop and Bop written over their pictures. They’re the names he gave them when he was young, and he is honouring them with his app.
We know from footage of Ben’s graduation, when his parents gave Ben a big cheque as an investment in his new company, that they jokingly suggested naming it Mom and Dad. With BoopBop, Ben is trying to honour his family. But he also feel he’s failed them, living in that lovely apartment and faffing about with his app, too obsessed with making it perfect to actually launch it.
Then Herschel arrives in Schlupsk, having returned to make amends. The two Greenbaums go and sit by the pond, Sarah’s favourite place, where she and Herschel had sat a century before talking about what they wanted from life: she to afford her own gravestone and he to taste seltzer water. (I did love the huge and ugly power station now built on the other side of the pond. Well, I didn’t, because it was huge and ugly, but I appreciated the visual gag.)
Ben points out that in America there is always the possibility of another chance, and they resolve to return there and work together, selling Herschel’s pickles around the world.
I know I said in my review it’s a slight tale, and on the surface it is, but it’s still a hoot (I’ve just watched it again and it’s even funnier the second time around). It’s also thought-provoking and sometimes moving about identity, family, and roots, as well as how those eternal issues play out in the newish online medium of social media.
The light sketching of the world around Ben and Herschel, and the corresponding bold drawing of the two men, may or may not be about highlighting the general lack of nuance around online discussion – that could be reading too much into it. But it’s also a bit of a relief; it’s funny, and cartoonish, and sometimes I think there can be too much authentic detail, pickles notwithstanding.
I think Rogen is terrific in it too, bringing depth and meaning to a story, and to the characters, that in different hands could have been both earnest, unoriginal and twee (he produced as well as starring in it). Watching Herschel going through Ben’s album of family photographs is very moving, as he sees his son for the first time and hears how each generation was more successful than the one before.
As for that mid-credits scene, the two men watch Barbra Streisand in Yentl…
Anyway I’m off to milk a cow and sell it as “cow milk”, it’s surely due a revival with the foodie influencer crowd.
Enjoy the movie! It’s in UK cinemas from 7 August on on digital in the US from 6 August.