Herschel Greenbaum is well over 100 years old, but he doesn’t look a day over 40. You might call him “well preserved.”
He doesn’t owe his youthful glow to his long-time exercise regimen of digging ditches and killing rats. Nor does he have a wrinkle-defying beauty cream in his vest pocket. The only cream he’s familiar with is the stuff that, back in his Eastern European village, came out of the family cow.
Herschel owes his longevity to a freakish accident in a New York pickle factory. One day while chasing rats, the Jewish immigrant fell headlong into a vat of pickle brine, which was promptly sealed up and (thanks to the factory suddenly being condemned) left to marinate for a century or so.
But even pickled people need to be dragged out of the brine eventually, and so it was with Herschel—pulled out and plopped down smackdab in the 21st-century.
The bad news: His beloved wife Sarah has been dead for 80 years, and everyone he knew and everything he was familiar with is long gone.
The good news: You can make your own seltzer water.
Also, Herschel has a chance to meet Ben Greenbaum, his very own great grandchild. For Herschel, that opportunity is a gift from above, a thrill he never thought he’d experience. He savors his time with Ben … for a good 10 minutes or so.
But Ben doesn’t seem to share his values. He’s not religious. He has no pictures of his mother and father (who died in an auto accident years ago) hanging up in his apartment. Ben’s life, it seems, is developing an app that helps people shop conscientiously: Take a picture of the label of, say, a bag of kale chips, and Ben’s app will tell you if the company’s “ethical” or not.
Ben calls his fledgling app BoopBop and obsesses over whether the logo is mustardy enough.
Ethical kale chips? Computer apps? Mustard-colored logos? Insanity, Herschel believes. And when he learns that his beloved Sarah’s grave (along with the graves of Ben’s own parents) is located in a rundown, trash-riddled Jewish cemetery where a billboard for vodka, of all things, looms over all—untended and even mostly unvisited by Ben—Herschel realizes that his own progeny pickle has fallen far from the cucumber vine.
“Someone has to defend the honor of our family!” Herschel shouts at Ben. And as their argument heats up, Herschel decides he’s going to leave Ben’s apartment, start his own business and earn enough money to buy the Jewish cemetery and tear down the billboard.
“I will prove you stupid!” Herschel thunders. “Because you are my enemy!”
But how can Herschel—a man whose skill sets are literally a hundred years out of date—make the $200,000 he needs to prove Ben stupid? By making pickles, of course.
This Seth Rogen comedy would seem at first to be a simple Rip Van Winkle story: Guy falls asleep, wakes up decades later and must figure out how to use Twitter. But An American Pickle goes deeper than that: At its cucumber core, it’s about family, and about loving and accepting members of that family despite some strong (and often generational) differences.
Herschel is, by definition, out of step with his time. He says and does some truly offensive things. But he also has a really firm understanding of what’s important in life: He values both faith and family, and he initially sees Ben as a man of no substance—one so distracted by the tempting baubles of modern life that he’s lost track of what’s truly to be treasured.
Herschel’s not entirely wrong, by the way. But Ben’s commitment to family goes deeper than Herschel originally imagines. And even as Ben grows frustrated with Herschel and his antiquated ways—even to the point where he sabotages Herschel’s pickle business—he comes to see and appreciate the age-old wisdom that Herschel embodies.
Herschel is Jewish, and fervently so. Throughout the film, he makes reference to the many blessings and designs of Hashem (Judaism’s way of referring to God), and one of the first things he asks Ben to do with him when the two finally meet is to visit the cemetery where Sarah and Ben’s parents are buried and say a prayer for the dead.
Ben refuses to pray there. “I’m not very religious,” Ben says, and it’s true. But it wasn’t always so. We see pictures of him at his Bar Mitzvah as a teen (his proud parents standing nearby), and Ben eventually seems to return to the faith.
Herschel’s personal faith—now a century out of circulation—comes with plenty of, shall we say, rough edges. When he dives into Twitter, one of Herschel’s opening volleys tells “sodomites” that “Hashem will smite you for your sins” and that they “will burn in flames for your crimes against God,” while still encouraging these sodomites to buy his pickles. (He also suggests that “wheelchair people” are being cursed by Hashem.)
Such missives cause many folks to recoil from Herschel’s frank talk. Others suggest he’s a welcome provocateur and timely advocate for unvarnished, un-PC free speech … until he’s asked a question about Christian prayer in school. In a public debate, he gives voice to his own thoughts on Christianity—that Mary was a prostitute and the Immaculate Conception was her way of covering up that fact. “If you believe the story of Jesus, you are stupid idiot,” he tells his audience. (That’s a bridge too far for even Herschel’s staunchest defenders, and things go downhill for him quickly after that.)
We see the inside and outside of a Jewish synagogue, along with Menorahs, religious texts and wise, kindly rabbis. Herschel and his wife, Sarah, get married in a Jewish ceremony. We hear some slurs directed at “Jews.”
When Herschel’s first two pickle customers take a whiff of his pickles, they say the smell comes “straight from the devil.” “I can smell it in my eye,” one says, while another says jokingly they must be “satanic.” When one says offhandedly, “Amen,” Herschel gets excited. “You are religious!” he exclaims, as the two walk away.
Despite Herschel’s strong views on “sodomites,” those first two customers mentioned above appear to be a gay couple.
Ben has a picture hanging in his apartment depicting four of singer David Bowie’s most famous personas. Herschel at first assumes that they’re images of Ben’s father and mother. When Herschel sees pictures of Ben as a boy, or even sees the current version of Ben from afar, he sometimes mistakes him as a “shapely young woman.”
During a debate, Herschel’s opponent accuses Herschel of thinking that women are made only to “serve.” Herschel doesn’t deny it, using as part of his argument the “hole” that babies come out of in a woman’s body—literally serving the world children.
Herschel and Sarah touch each other affectionately when they meet and marry in 1919, and they of course eventually have a baby (a son). But we don’t see them engage in any sort of graphic intimacy. Indeed, the most romantic interaction they seem to have in the movie is when Herschel first gives a fish to a starving Sarah, she bites off its head and chews it lovingly.
“I will do violence!” Herschel shouts when he gets riled. And indeed, his fists are often uncurbed as his tongue.
He fights with several billboard workers after they erect a vodka billboard over his family’s graves—punching several of them. Ben accidentally gets involved in the melee, and both are sent to jail for assault. He punches other people, too, and at least once he knocks someone unconscious.
But Herschel came from a violent world. His native Eastern European country was constantly being attacked by Cossacks: They attack, in fact, right after he and Sarah get married, leaving their town in ruins and both of them spattered in blood. (We don’t see the attack itself.) And when Herschel learns that Ben’s own parents died, he asks, “Murdered? Or regular?” When Ben says they died in a car accident, Herschel says, “regular, then,” and asks Ben to tell him exactly how they died—leaving no detail unearthed—so he can better share Ben’s grief.
After the Cossack attack on the village, Herschel and Sarah immigrate to the United States, where Herschel gets a job killing rats. We see him chasing after them with a huge hammer and, when he apparently hits one, Herschel’s face and shirt are splattered with blood. (The rat doesn’t appear to die, though: It squeals and Herschel’s forced to chase it again.)
Herschel falls from a platform into a vat of pickle brine, and he’s chased by an angry mob throwing things after he makes one of his more colorful statements. He encourages Ben to “throw your punch,” which means that Ben should just finish his app and submit it to someone already.
We see Sarah bite the head off a whole fish. Someone falls and cuts their hand.
We hear one very quick f-word, along with several uses of the s-word (including once from a child). We also hear “d–n” infrequently and “h—” several times. An f-word stand-in (the offending word concluding with the letter “x” instead) is seen on someone’s computer screen, and a guy says that Herschel’s accent is “as cute AF.” A crass word for a bit of the male anatomy is also seen in a newspaper headline. A protest sign uses the word “suck” in a vaguely obscene context.
Herschel, as mentioned, is incensed by a billboard advertising vanilla-flavored vodka—in part because the Cossacks that ransacked his village were drunk on vodka. Some scenes take place in a neighborhood bar, and we see a wall festooned with liquor bottles.
Herschel’s “artisanal pickles” are disgusting—at least at first. He fishes out a bag of old pickles and a bag of salt from a dumpster, collects a bevy of old (and very filthy) glass jars and mixes the whole shebang with rain water. The operation is shut down, and Herschel has to change how he does things.
He does so, though, by hiring a bunch of “interns,” which Herschel associates with “slaves.” When he’s interviewing them, in fact, he has them stand on a picnic table as he taps their legs with a stick. He forces one to open her mouth so he can inspect her teeth.
Someone urinates, from a distance, on the side of a road. We hear a number of bigoted slurs, one or two from Herschel. Someone tries to circumvent and escape the law, and we see several instances of lying (sometimes with severe consequences) and backstabbing. Brown glop pours down on a tombstone.
Seth Rogen and Plugged In rarely get along. Most of Rogen’s comedies tend to be salacious, explicit R-rated affairs, and Rogen was behind Sausage Party—a well-received but incredibly foul film that’s one of my least-favorite movies I’ve ever reviewed.
And that makes An American Pickle something of a surprise.
Oh, I can still find plenty to take issue with in this movie’s PG-13 confines. Herschel’s take on Christianity is abhorrent, of course, and it’s meant to be. But many faith-based viewers will find it offensive enough to bypass the flick altogether. The splattered blood and smattering of foul language should certainly make the discerning viewer pause, as well.
And yet, Rogen deals with two subjects that we care about deeply at Plugged In: Faith and family. And it treats them both with respect and affection.
Herschel may not share the faith that most Plugged In readers do, but his commitment to his Judaism, and the movie’s insistence on both its inherent beauty and importance (in times of grief, at least) showcases religion in a positive light. The fact that Ben returns to his faith, at least in part, emphasizes the power of belief, and its ability to tie generations together through the age-old patter of tradition.
But the family elements of the film feel even more resonant. Let’s face it; Most of us have relations who can drive us a little nuts. If we’re older, we might rail against the shallow flippancy of youth, that people aren’t as grounded as they once were. If we’re younger, we may be embarrassed by some of our forebears’ intolerance or ill-worn attitudes. Most of us have probably been part of family dinners where someone said something that left us shaking our heads.
An American Pickle acknowledges that tension. It doesn’t excuse bad behavior. But it does honor good people who sometimes say (or even do) bad things. It insists that we don’t need to agree on everything to find points of commonality or even wisdom from each other. We can roll our eyes at something someone says and still love them and respect them. And that feels like a particularly timely message in these rather shrill times.
An American Pickle is a little like a pickle itself: A little sour and a little sweet. And that, my friends, is the real dill.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.