HBO's 'An American Pickle' Transcends Its clever Premise

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The script, written by the humorist and Saturday Night Live alumnus Simon Rich, does its best to deepen its high-concept premise, which originated as a piece in The New Yorker. But for me the hook was enough. I, like the fictional Ben Greenbaum, am descended from Jews who fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, and I sometimes wonder what might my ancestors make of me, living in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods where they settled after arriving at Ellis Island. Herschel, who worked at the pickle factory killing rats, is astounded at the number of pairs of socks Ben owns (upwards of 25), but is less impressed by his computer-programming skills and dreams of making an app that evaluates how ethically various food products are made.

An American Pickle emphasizes the sense of melancholy that its main characters share, even with their century of disconnect. (Hopper Stone / HBO Max)

An American Pickle is rife with jokes along these lines: Herschel is amazed by some convenience of modern life (a home seltzer machine is a particular shock), but is totally nonchalant when it comes to Ben’s actual hopes and dreams. Though the pair initially bond over their physical resemblance and memories of family, Herschel’s quick temper and frustration with contemporary life tear the duo apart. Much of the film’s middle act is dominated by silly hijinks: Herschel starts a pickling business, becomes a minor internet celebrity, and eventually lands in hot water when he starts broadcasting his outdated societal views via a Twitter account. But it’s Rich’s understanding of the connection between Herschel and Ben, not their time-dilated differences, that won me over.

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HBO's 'An American Pickle' Transcends Its Clever Premise

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These characters are linked by solitude. Herschel is unmoored from his reality and mourning his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), while Ben lost his parents in a car accident and lives a rather lonely life in his well-appointed apartment. The quietest moments, like when Herschel and Ben sit down to marvel at old photos together, make the biggest impression. The film doesn’t attempt to broach the darkest chapters of history that Herschel missed—there’s no discussion of the Holocaust, for example—but it does emphasize the sense of melancholy that its main characters share, even with their century of disconnect.

The thrust of Rich’s story, and his original New Yorker humor pieces, is simple enough. Who hasn’t held a black-and-white picture of a long-lost relative and wondered how they might feel about all the ways the world has changed? Rich sees much to admire in Herschel’s indomitable spirit and deep passion for his Jewish identity. The writer also clearly thinks that his own, deeply flawed generation could learn something from Herschel’s plain outlook on surviving in a tougher world. The most profound emotional aspect of the film is the sense that Herschel and Ben can’t escape each other, even when they’re mad at each other.

HBO's 'An American Pickle' Transcends Its Clever Premise