The last 100 years of world history have been rather dramatic. In fact, the last five years have been revolutionary. So imagine falling asleep in 1919 and then waking up all these years later to our contemporary, modern world.
The differences would be frightening, and that’s the premise of Seth Rogen’s new flick, An American Pickle.
Adapted from the 2013 New Yorker novella, Sell Out by Simon Rich, the story centres on Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) – a Jewish immigrant factory worker who accidentally falls into a vat of brine, and is miraculously preserved for a hundred years before waking up in an unfamiliar, new Brooklyn. Herschel tracks down his last remaining relative and great-grandson Ben (also played by Seth), learning about what’s changed, and finding that his artisanal skills are very much on trend.
First things first, you may very well wonder why Seth Rogen – an actor known for MA15+ comedies like Bad Neighbours, Knocked Up, and Pineapple Express – would star in a PG movie like An American Pickle. The answer is: who knows, but his experiment has merit.
As a commentary on the old versus the new, and how our ancestors would feel in the culture we’ve created – and, in fact, how we’d really feel meeting them and hearing their old-school philosophies on life on the world – An American Pickle is very perceptive.
Taking a man like Herschel who had to work with his hands and labour for days, and contrasting him with the app-developing, Kombucha-loving Ben, we see how far societies’ values have shifted from a skills-based economy to an ideas-based one.
Herschel learns that Ben’s thoughts on success seem to be found not in what he’s achieved and the honour it brings to the family name but in how he’s perceived by his peers and the money it makes him.
We see broad cultural views on race, religion and consumerism reflected back to us against the attitudes of simpler times, and the rules of this life we now live seem thoroughly bizarre. When Herschel discovers Ben has soda water on tap (thank you SodaStream), and 25 pairs of socks, he can’t fathom that any one person would have access to so many luxuries. You can’t help but think, ‘My goodness we take so much for granted’.
One of the standout themes in An American Pickle is about the modern relevance of faith and religion.
As Herschel talks about the need to pray for his relatives, and properly mark the passing of ones he never met, Ben’s aghast at the thought but concedes that Herschel’s understandably religious “given the era he came from”. Ben suggests the world’s outgrown the idea of organised religion and God, and is better off as a result.
Interestingly, despite Ben’s aversion to Judaism, his relationship the traditions of his faith is explored throughout the movie and, without saying too much, we see how even in our secular age there is a widespread defense of certain religious beliefs. What Ben unfortunately misses about faith in God is that it’s not something that shifts with the trends or becomes passé, but is an eternally-needed anchor for our souls.
An American Pickle isn’t a movie you need to see in cinemas – in the US it’s being streamed. The only reason it isn’t streamed here is because we don’t have HBO Max. But the movie does provide a thoughtful look at the disconnect between us and our ancestors.
An American Pickle is out now. Rated PG. Parents Guide