An immigrant worker at a pickle factory is accidentally preserved for 100 years and wakes up in modern day Brooklyn.
An absurdist and enormously entertaining takedown of both cancel culture and cancel “cancel culture” culture, An American Pickle is about reconnecting with one’s history in a world that hasn’t really changed as much as we like to think.
A devoted and determined Seth Rogen plays both Greenbaums: Herschel, who falls into a vat of brine in the New York factory where he works in 1919; and great grandson Ben, who has to look after Herschel when he emerges in 2019, body and attitudes perfectly preserved and ready to take on the 21st century.
The film is based on the New Yorker novella Sell Out by Simon Rich, who also wrote the screenplay. At times its central joke is stretched thinner than the skin of the permanently affronted; the targets are easy and appeal to our sense of superiority, something else I doubt has changed down the ages. But it’s always engaging and often very funny – picking and choosing its time-traveller jokes while laughing at how much we pick and choose from the past.
Watching it I felt an affinity with Herschel, though while he drowned in soggy cucumbers, emerging into a changed world after 100 years, I’ve been drowning in sourdough starters and unfinished creative projects and am emerging into a “new normal” after a mere 133 days.
I also felt an affinity with Ben, who has failed to further the family fortunes and honour: I can’t say I’ve been a huge success, being neither rich nor able to do a handstand, despite being descended from both lords of the manor and a troupe of circus tumblers.
Herschel had already taken the first steps towards the American dream, going from ditch digger in the Eastern European country of Schlupsk to Brooklyn. He brought with him his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) and a deep hatred of Cossacks. That loathing is still intact in 2019, leaving him angry and anguished when he sees a billboard for vodka looming over the family’s now-overgrown cemetery plot.
Buying the billboard and destroying it – and removing the insult to his late wife and Ben’s dead parents – is paramount for Herschel.
Sarah’s dreams of riches were small scale: to be able to afford her own gravestone, evidence that the more things change the more they stay the same. Herschel wanted to taste seltzer water. But overall, family was always everything, even those generations ahead of him.
Herschel sees his “freelance mobile app developer” great grandson as a failure: Ben has no children, no income, no friends, no god and only one unfinished app to his name.
The app is designed to show people whether the product they want to buy is ethical or not. Unsurprisingly it remains in development after five years; where once we merely checked if our oranges were South African, now buying anything is fraught, for one’s own peace of mind and because of the pious calling-out that might ensue online.
Initially Ben enjoys showing Herschel this brave new world. To Herschel’s delight, Ben has a fizzy water maker; this, and Herschel discovering how many fruits, nuts and vegetables are now “milked” for human consumption, are the main ways we’re shown Herschel getting used to the new century. It’s a typical turn in a film which mocks some tropes while wholeheartedly embracing others (for once I did love the “blog post with one million views” chestnut).
But what Ben deliberately doesn’t explain – already struggling with self-worth before Herschel appears like a nagging alter-ego at his shoulder – is that while Herschel is from an era where change came relatively slowly, now a tweet can end a career.
With the two soon driven apart by rancour and misconnections, Ben has to watch while Herschel starts a new roadside pickle business and becomes an overnight sensation, his product taking over all the online and offline spaces where Ben likes to hang out.
An American Pickle is both stagey and fairytale-like, deliberately hitching itself to the kind of part-factual, part-fantastical stories elderly relatives like to tell over and over. Seconds after Herschel disappears into the brine in 1919, a wooden lid is pulled across, a man appears condemning the building, and everybody leaves. When he starts his 21st century pickle business, he finds not only a bag of cucumbers in the grocer dumpster but right next to it a large bag of salt.
Waiting in the park, his cucumbers and salt sitting in pickle jars also taken from bins, he stares upwards, awaiting a rainstorm to dissolve the salt and form the brine. He’s like Dr Frankenstein praying for that electrical storm to rouse his creation.
His pickles, appealing to a community which likes nothing better than to reappraise something ordinary as a hipster lifestyle essential, are an instant hit. Herschel has something we all aspire to but rarely possess: authenticity. His labels are genuinely tatty rather than artfully distressed, and he demands buyers return the jars so he can reuse them rather than to show off his recycling credentials.
He’s a quick learner, and soon ups the price from $4 to $14 while discovering the usefulness of free labour in the form of unpaid internships; though his foray into social media is a disaster. America wants 20th century authenticity sanitised for 21st century consumption, and Herschel brings with him a whole load of offensive attitudes whether about women or the use of “big violence”.
What An American Pickle deliberately misses out serves to show how fake news and personality has come to dominate facts. The huge story of Herschel’s survival in the brine is dealt with at a single news conference where questions about the science are answered in the flimsiest way, to the satisfaction of all journalists present – while his individuality and idiosyncrasies make him first blog-worthy and then network news-worthy.
Herschel’s fanbase grows and contracts as he delights and horrifies different sections of society, a pattern of alternate public adoration and opprobrium of the type which keeps us both glued to our phones and in a semi-permanent state of angry arousal.
Eventually his utterances become so offensive there can surely be no coming back for him. But hey, this is America…
Note: There is a mid-credits scene.
An American Pickle is available digitally in the US, and in UK cinemas
Watch the trailer now: