Some find it hard to believe, but a film's title can say everything about not just a movie's meaning but also it's quality. An American Pickle, a simple title, has a very tongue-in-cheek meaning to it. An Eastern European pickler of the early 20th century falls into a vat of brine and is frozen in time until he awakens in 2020 and meets his great grandson. Like the title, the movie is simple and efficient. Ultimately this sums up the film, caught in the awkward genre of dramedy. When Jodie Foster's 2011 film The Beaver underperformed, her response as to why was simple. She found that the film's genre lent to it not doing well in the US because, in her words, "very often Americans are not comfortable with [that]." While that's a possibility, it might not be the answer for Rogen's new film, available now on HBO Max. Rather, it's just not particularly interesting. That's not to say the film is bad, but it's a middle of the road story, caught between serviceable and good, much like how it's caught between these two genres.
Rogen deserves all the credit in the world performance-wise. He not only conveys Herschel Greenbaum, the pickler, with a sense of stoic traditionalism and unfiltered opinion, he gives Ben Greenbaum, his grandson, a deflecting sadness and modern sensibilities. And he manages to play off himself with both personalities never losing their edge. Obviously he seems to have more fun as Herschel, especially as his character enters the 20th century and it clashes with his old ways. The film almost solely leans on this back-and-forth between Rogen's two characters and he carries it well. Where his characters are carried to is not particularly original or even surprising.
Much like David O. Russell's set of dramedies that he did in the early-to-mid 2010's (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy), first time director Brandon Trost is more than fine taking a story we've seen a thousand times and simply adding eccentricity to it as a distraction from the fact you know exactly where the story is going to go. Simon Rich's script (Based on Rich's own 2013 short story "Sell Out") keeps the pacing well and comes to a resolution that is satisfying, but the predictability and observations of the characters is telegraphed almost from the get-go. An Encino Man for the 2020's. Even composer Nami Melumad delivers a score that features instruments you knew would take part in a story of an immigrant in America (That darn accordion!). And again, like Russell's films, the characters don't really change or grow or suffer consequences from their often vulgar actions. Rather, they seem in a bubble, suffering only minor bruises from the world around them that never seem to affect them, but rather exist to simply get them to the next story beat.
When this movie is at it's best is these rare moments of emotional honesty, which strangely happens the most in the opening flashback sequence that tells Herschel's story in 1919 Eastern Europe and how he and his wife Sarah (Played by the kind warmth of Sarah Snook whose brief screen time is a treasure to the film's entire emotional drive) immigrate to New York City. However, these moments do trickle throughout the story, hinting at that tragic motivations of Ben and how that ties into Herschel's lifelong hope of his family striving in America. Perhaps though this is another reason a dramedy has been a genre that's never caught on except mostly in lower budget films (An American Pickle was made for $20 million which is small compared to other movies these days). The two genres, the genuine drama of the characters and the hilarity of the situation become at odds with each other.
But, perhaps, that is the point of the film, which serves as the first original film released by HBO Max. It's meant to be a simple and pleasant piece of comfort food with no stakes. Just a couple good laughs, a few standard plays of observation on how the world views things, and a touching conclusion to make you think "The world isn't all bad". It's a serviceable film and maybe that's what audiences really want right now. Admittedly, it was a comforting film to enjoy, even if it didn't set any high expectations and only slightly pulled itself over the curve.
Rogen's dual performance.
Predictable story with predictable outcome.
Theme: Family first...touching but obvious.
Nami Melumad's Score. Why are accordion's so synonymous with immigration?