An American Pickle (PG, 89 minutes)
An American Pickle is one of those films that feels like it's too ambitious. Is it a comedy-drama about Jewish identity and the importance of family? Is it a culture-clash fantasy about a man coming into a totally unfamiliar world? Or is it a satire on how the internet can both create and cancel celebrities seemingly at whim?
The answer to all these is yes. It doesn't mean the film is a failure - it's quite engaging - but it feels the elements don't sit too easily together and a bit more work deciding on how to proceed would have given it more of the emotional impact it seems to seek.
Seth Rogen, best known for affable, laid-back comedy characters, plays the two leads (everyone else has little more than a bit part). While Rogen has played dramatic roles before, such as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs, he has to stretch here in two quite different parts. Casting a more capable dramatic actor might have been wise but the special effects, costuming and make-up help sell the two roles.
The first is Herschel, a devout and serious-minded Jewish labourer who in 1919 emigrates with his wife to the US after their village is wiped out by Russian Cossacks. He gets a job killing rats at a Brooklyn pickle factory and saves up enough money to buy two plots in a Jewish cemetery before falling into a vat of pickles as the factory is closing. He's brined and revived after a century when two kids find him while exploring the abandoned premises.
The more familiar "Seth Rogen" character is orphaned Ben Greenbaum, who's spent years working on Boop Bop, an app that would allow consumers to check companies' ethical standards.
When Herschel is revived, he discovers Ben is his only surviving relative. They end up in Ben's apartment and Herschel finds himself struggling to adapt to the technology and culture of 2019 while also finding himself disappointed by Ben's lapsed Jewishness and apparent lack of ambition and achievement.
Eventually, the situation becomes untenable and Hershel leaves to start his own pickling business. He becomes a media celebrity for his artisanal product: he uses only cucumber, salt and rainwater in his product.
But the envious and angry Ben sabotages his great-grandfather, siccing the health department on him, then setting him up to be "cancelled" by both the left and the right for his ultraconservative and anti-Christian attitudes. Where will it all end?
There's a lot of good material here, with effective dramatic and comedic moments. Herschel's wonder at how seltzer water has turned from unaffordable luxury to commonplace homemade product is strangely touching, and there's real feeling too in some of the scenes involving family and culture.
The satirical treatment of the double-edged sword of online celebrity works quite well (the lack of overt anti-Semitism in all the vitriol directed at Herschel seems unlikely, though given the essentally sweet nature of the film, it's understandable).
Even going along with the fantastic premise some of what happens is hard to swallow. Herschel and his wife stand agape as the other villagers are murdered around them but somehow survive. The way his fall into the pickle vat is staged. it's impossible to believe that nobody would see or hear it. And how did the abandoned factory survive for a century in Brooklyn without being demolished?
Some of the problems might arise from inexperience in two key areas. This is screenwriter Simon Rich's first solo writing credit - he's adapting a story he wrote for The New Yorker Brandon Trost (a cinematographer whose credits include This is the End and Neighbors, both starring Rogen) is making his feature directorial debut.
Perhaps the more experienced Rogen and frequent collaborator Evan Greenberg - who produced but did not, as they often do, write and direct - didn't want to tread on their toes.
The mid-credits scene is funny but slightly jarring, part of the film's overall problem with unevenness of tone. For all its faults, this is still a nice little film; it just feels like it could have been more.