There seems to be something happening in American Comedy ™ at the moment. A big problem I’ve been having with American Comedy ™ of late is that it feels like there wasn’t any actual filmmaking happening, it’s just one big homogeneous glob of improvisation. No real jokes just people all standing in a room with a camera in a wide shot trying to out-funny each other with half arsed witticisms that they then immediately explain the punchline of. It’s just not funny, you all know a movie like this. This kind of corporate co-opting of the mumblecore aesthetics for the sake of not having to try.
My point here is that I’ve felt recently like that’s been changing. We’ve been seeing big comedy actor names lend their presence to comedies that also happen to be films with stories and themes and characters and filmmaking and interesting things happening! Even outside of this, films like Game Night & Ready or Not show that this brand of comedy can work in the mainstream. My point is that, like them or not, films like Palm Springs, Horse Girl, and An American Pickle seem to be heralding some very exciting new voices in comedy.
That… that doesn’t mean they’re all good.
An American Pickle has many pros but also many cons that add up to a very uneven and ultimately boring experience that adds insult to injury by not just being a propagandistic parable but a condescending one at that.
An American Pickle follows Seth Rogan as Hershel Greenbaum, a humble jewish man who has just married the love of his life, (an all too mute and brief Sarah Snook, fans of Succession will feel cheated), before he travels to America in search of a better life away from comically villainous Russian cossacks. This whole thing is shot in, I think, 1.19:1, with a very artful and cold colour palette that leads you to believe you’ll be watching something far more interesting. He gets a job in America killing rats in a pickle factory and, I’m not kidding you, the rats gang up on him and rush him into a pickle vat just before the very moment the factory is condemned, trapping him, in a cruel twist of fate, in a vat of pickle brine.
This isn’t actually the only time the movie homages, (really rips off), Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke because the film also uses the death of his wife in quite a similar way to how Moore uses Batgirl’s paralysation in The Killing Joke, (in a way Moore regrets by the way). Both texts have an otherwise almost mute and short lived woman in the story who is idealised by the male characters, who is then destroyed by the narrative in order to cause a man we care about pain, asking us to care more about how a man feels about a woman then anything about the humanity of the actual woman. It’s a common trope but one we’ve been subverting in the media for years and just rolling it out again is lazy.
Anyway, in a narrative contrivance of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery levels Herschel is literally pickled, Captain America: The First Avenger style, into the modern day. The film does borrow from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in a way I found quite charming in how it explains it’s narrative contrivances, big Basil Exposition hours. Suffice to say, there are two Seth Rogans, one a millennial techie and one his great grandfather, Herschel Greenbaum. They’re living together, getting up to hijinks, trying to do business stuff. If you thought Ghostbusters had a problem with Reaganomics worship you ain’t seen nothing yet. American exceptionalism and Capitalist fanfiction to the max baby!
This is then to the fundamental heart of the problem with An American Pickle, it is propaganda of the highest order. Now, that is not, in itself, a bad thing. After all, all films have meaning and a perspective. It could be argued, and I have argued it, that all films are fundamentally propagandistic. They use simple storytelling techniques to convey themes, to convey ideas. Even Strike or Battleship Potemkin, which were literally propaganda, are two of the most beautiful, striking, and important films ever made. In fact most films that aren’t propagandistic in some way end up being crap. If you’re not thinking about your theme, you can wind up being really messy or even dangerous with your theme. For reference, just see any work by Micheal Bay. Unfortunately, this is the trap that An American Pickle falls into, and it’s themes are… complicated… It essentially plays out like a Capitalist parable with a few, then even more complicated caveats. Essentially the parable is on the face of it that you come to America to indulge in Capitalism because America projects itself all over the world as the pinnacle of opportunity through being the pinnacle of unfettered Capitalism and in the end it not only takes his family away from him but drives him away from the family he has after being pickled, his great grandson. In the end they reconcile back in his hometown and they bond at the lake where he met his wife, with a huge factory being built off to the side. On the face of it this is a pretty standard anti-capitalist message, be thankful for the little you have, money corrupts and all that. However, any vaguely savvy critic reading along Marxist cultural interpretations will know this a bourgeois message given by the bourgeois medium that is cinema, especially bourgeois mainstream big budget American Comedies ™ starring Seth Rogan, (I know Seth Rogan comedies typically pain in the broad strokes of more proletariat art but that that’s a pretty outdated interpretation of what’s bourgeois and what’s proletariat, in my humble). What is so bourgeois then? This is a message designed to present Capitalism as a monolithic force that will consume everything, hence the final symbol of the factory over-towering the nice beautiful lake. However, the underlying thing, if being read by a Marxist critic, that this movie wants you to take away is to keep being a worker. Entrepreneurial endeavours should be left to the ruling class and established business owners. Stay quiet with the little you have, and keep working for us. Go back to where you came from, geographically and financially. This is how the movie loses its theme, it thinks it’s about family, but never realises it’s actually about Capitalism, and doesn’t know what to do with this idea, and wouldn’t if it knew it had to.
In summary, none of this is to say that the movie doesn’t have good things, funny moments, or things to like, but my lord is it lazy, problematic, and generally needing to be funnier.