An American Pickle is Pleasant Perfection
Before quarantine, I’d occasionally find myself outside, perhaps at a nearby park, the sun beating down at the optimum level of heat, the noises from nearby children or frisbee-tossers just low enough to avoid bothering me but high enough to infect me with their cheer. The moment would feel perfect; nothing about it is particularly great, and certainly nothing is overwhelmingly memorable – but everything would feel right. I called this pleasant perfection, nothing more, nothing less.
For much of its 85-minute runtime, An American Pickle is pleasant perfection. There’s a particular sequence that sums it up: Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) has emerged from a vat of pickle brine 100 years after falling in. He discovers that the world is a very different place, and that his only living relative is a great grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Seth Rogen). At Ben’s Brooklyn apartment, Herschel discovers the magic of oldies radio, and as Ben dances like a fool to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” Herschel stares at in awe, slowly succumbing to the dulcet pleading of Mr. Williams. “Please, please, please...just a little bit longerrrr.”
The moment is exactly the type of culture clash you expect to populate a cliche-driven fish-out-of-water comedy, and yet somehow it works. Rogen acts both parts – particularly Herschel – with sensitivity and a pitch-perfect mixture of earnestness and indifference. And the film moves at a breakneck pace, its jokes coming several a minute so that even the ones that fall flat are replaced before the disappointment has time to register.
An American Pickle does have its pitfalls – namely confusion about its own identity. It spends a lot of time as a wannabe Armando Iannucci-like political and cultural satire (the American in the title does a lot more work than you might think). Some of the satire works (“A slave?” Herschel asks when two nearby Brooklynites try to explain the concept of interns), other moments flop like the fish-out-of-water that Herschel is (“there’s milk from everything these days!”).
Then there are moments where it feels as though Rogen took over directing duties for the day, instituting an improv-friendly shooting-style and letting his actors – aka himself – run wild. Scenes turn away from biting commentary and lean instead toward absurdist humor, trading late-career Adam McKay for early-career McKay/Ferrell. The exaggerated comedy works to undermine anyone taking the mockery too seriously, but it also gives An American Pickle a patchwork feel. The film lacks cohesion, which does a disservice to its emotional through-line – a lesson on family, insecurity, and courage that might have packed a stronger punch if the surrounding pieces held together.
The film features one – or two, if you want to count it that way – of Rogen’s best performances. The world took notice of the lovable goofball’s dramatic acting chops in Steve Jobs, but it’s his role in 2011’s 50/50 that Rogen effectively channels in An American Pickle. Rogen has always been the acting embodiment of Judd Apatow’s style: a soft, squishy heart wrapped up in crude, juvenile humor. In American Pickle, the heart isn’t quite as soft, and the humor is a bit more mature, but it's the same Seth Rogen. And it's pleasant perfection.