Simon Rich is an extremely gifted satirist. The former SNL writer is also the mastermind behind the FX cult comedy Man Seeking Woman and the TBS show Miracle Workers, as well as many short stories and a few novels – all of which contain some element of absurdity and metaphor. Rich’s stories are imaginative, often unexpected, and (given the fact that he’s only 36) strangely wise. His writing is so thoughtful and observant that it often feels like the work of someone much older.
An American Pickle, adapted by Rich from his novella, Sell Out (originally published in the New Yorker), is no different. The Brandon Trost-directed film, available now on HBO Max, is a funny and touching consideration of family, legacy and the ways tradition evolves. It’s a call to recognize our individual and collective pasts – both for the good parts we should embrace, and the problematic parts we need to reckon with.
Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is a lowly ditch-digger in the Eastern European village of Schlupsk in the early 1900s. Schlupsk is a cold, muddy place where joy only lasts until the Cossacks show up to kill your family. In search of a better life, Herschel and his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) immigrate to New York, where Herschel gets a job clubbing rats in a pickle factory. Life seems pretty good until Herschel falls into a vat of pickle brine.
Herschel wakes up 100 years later, perfectly preserved by the pickling liquid. Now in 2020, he’s reunited with his only living relative, Ben Greenbaum (Rogen again), a would-be app developer. Herschel wants to visit the cemetery and pray over his dead wife and descendents. Ben, who’s not religious and has conflicted feelings about the death of his own parents, has reservations.
Believing Ben to be a disgrace, Herschel decides to make his own way in a strange new world by selling pickles, eventually encountering the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, online culture and life as a public figure. Ben, appalled by Herschel’s old-fashioned worldviews (it might not surprise you that a European man from the early 20th Century has dated thoughts on women, interracial relationships and homosexuality) attempts to sabotage his ancestor as Herschel grows ever more successful. In the process, Ben rediscovers the value in certain traditions and elements of religious life that he’s long avoided.
Herschel serves as a metaphor for the ways we both try to escape our family history, and are shaped by the people who came before us. For the progressive, vegan Ben, everything about Herschel, from his dark old-world clothes to his giant beard and thick accent, represents a complex (and sometimes bigoted) past he doesn’t want to recognize. However, there are still parts of Herschel, like his devotion to his family, that Ben respects and needs in his life.
Using characteristic wit and blunt humor (“If man does not throw punch, it is because this man secretly has polio arm” is one of Herschel’s many old country sayings gone horribly wrong) Rich’s script addresses the conundrum of recognizing our past in light of our present. The title of An American Pickle could just as easily refer to the paradox of America’s complicated and problematic history as it does the actual pickles that feature in the plot. The film argues, quite convincingly, that there are parts of your history worth saving, and there are parts worth leaving in the past. But it’s important to recognize that both elements, the good and the bad, are what’s part of your life now.
“An American Pickle” is streaming on HBO Max.