Simon Rich is the New Yorker humorist and Pixar writer whose short stories are as addictive as crack. One of these, Sell Out, from his 2014 collection Spoilt Brats, has now been turned into a movie, with Rich as screenwriter and producer, cinematographer Brandon Trost making his feature directing debut, and Seth Rogen playing both the zany, twin-type lead roles: one with big bushy beard, one without.
What was a very funny piece of writing has become a funny film, with a broad streak of conservative sentimentality added like artificial flavouring, all about an innocent in New York in the fish-out-of-water tradition of Borat or Crocodile Dundee. The film gives us some wry insights about work, family, the American dream and an ironised Topol-like wail of “Tradition!”
Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, a dirt-poor Jewish ditch-digger in Słupsk, northern Poland in 1919, who has crazy dreams of one day being rich enough to afford his own gravestone. He has a humble cap, waistcoat, overcoat and patriarchal beard, and he has recently got married to the beautiful, proud Sarah (played by Sarah Snook – Shiv Roy in the TV drama Succession).
When the Cossacks descend on a murderous, Jew-hating rampage, wiping out almost their entire village, Herschel and Sarah escape and emigrate to the United States where poor Herschel gets a job killing rats at a pickle factory in New York. But a terrible accident means he falls into the pickle vat and is preserved for 100 years, finally climbing out into the brave, new, super-hipster world of 21st-century Brooklyn, where he has to live with his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), who is an app designer.
Herschel is frowningly dismayed at this baffling and meaningless job, and at Ben’s neglect of his family and his Jewish faith, and he sets out to redeem the family’s honour by setting up a business selling artisanal pickles from a worryingly familiar-looking cart, using a supermarket trolley and out-of-date ingredients pilfered from its dumpster. Could it be that Herschel’s ridiculous pickles will be more pungently real, more deserving of respect, and indeed more lucrative than anything in Ben’s specious existence?
There are laughs along the way with Herschel and Ben’s mirror-image intergenerational, culture-clash roommate bromance. But, inevitably, as with so much high-concept comedy, the real laughs, the ones built on detachment, self-aware flippancy and cynicism, come at the beginning, with the establishment of the premise. As the story has to be teased out to the full three acts, empathy and investment are increasingly important. So is borderline-cornball emotion, although Rich manages this competently.
In his original story, Rich appeared as himself (the modern-day Ben role), a playful self-deprecation in which he was a greedy and shallow writer supposedly working on his “novella” but always grabbing at high-paying Hollywood gigs, punching up (that is, adding jokes to) awful franchise scripts. Perhaps it is glib to wonder if this film isn’t a sellout in precisely the same way, but it doesn’t have the sharp, tickly, briny tang of the literary original.
That was narrated from Herschel’s uncomprehendingly stern-naive point of view, whereas the film, inevitably, is the other way around. We are encouraged to see the quaint, antique Herschel from Ben’s viewpoint, while undoubtedly noticing the emptiness of Ben’s prosperous modernity – he has a fridge full of different vegan-friendly milks, and when taken to pray at his forebears’ gravesides, he takes out his smartphone and absentmindedly scrolls through animal humour websites. It is right for the two men to look alike, although casting Rogen in both roles, really the only important roles in the film, creates a weirdly claustrophobic effect, like a Charlie Kaufman film.
In a way, it’s a shame that Snook couldn’t have been brought back into the story, either as a distant-cousin descendant or through having in some way flung herself despairingly into the pickle vat, although Herschel’s refusal to admit that his wife is gone is very funny. An American Pickle is a tasty, insubstantial snack of a comedy.
• An American Pickle is in cinemas from 7 August.
Source: The Guardian