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Review: An American Pickle

What makes for an amusing satire on paper does not always translate to the screen.  Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) falls into a vat of pickles into the 1920s Williamsburg, Brooklyn and awakes in the present preserved by the brine. His great grandson of the same age (also Seth Rogen) shows him around Brooklyn. This Rip Van Winkle tale is based loosely on a four-part serialization in The New Yorker that lampooned the modern world  — newly delayed adulthood, fraying speech patterns, and, most acutely, the ascendant hipster culture and its commitment to authentic dirty reality at odds with its prerequisite wealth/disposable income.

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, in the fairytale forerunners to “Rip Van Winkle”, the slumber advances the character to a new life, skipping all the nasty bits. A blessing in disguise. The long nap simply marks the passage of time in the Judaic parable version of the story (about sowing metaphorical seeds for future generation to reap). Here, it demonstrates how your forefathers persevered through a lot of shit, sometimes literal, only to bear time-spoiled descendants, eternally complacent and ignorant to true hardship.

The movie’s central farce is derived from reveling in the misunderstandings and ignorance of an old-timer. But, really, jokes like a fridge stuffed with non-dairy milks and kombucha lost any comedic edge six years ago and could only elicit laughter from an eleven-year-old, which is an ideal audience for a movie that doesn’t require a working understanding of sarcasm. (A better joke: Rogen’s broadly hipster getup that makes him look like Ness or a Pokemon trainer. How far his sartorial presence come since Knocked Up.) In that regard, the film has failed Simon Rich’s original satire, nestled in the “Shouts & Murmurs” section of the magazine.

Films necessitate a more fully developed world, and An American Pickle loses much of Rich’s stark humor and ekes out an entirely different story. Dispensing with the girlfriend subplot, An American Pickle is uniquely reimagined as a family rivalry. Herschel and Ben wind up engaging in feature-length one-upmanship, Greenbaum vs Greenbaum— a competition that suggests the enduring struggle to live up to one’s parents’ expectations. The elder pulls himself up by the bootstraps, achieving a personal and public success that eludes Ben. Rather than help his forebear, he jealously sabotages him. The plan backfires, for a time, when Herschel’s shameless out-dated opinions (on gender roles, politics, religion) catch fire. Someone even proposes a run for office, an ugly one-off comparison to our current Head of State that isn’t even enough to fuel a complete joke.

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