The Controversy Surrounding An American Pickle Is Better Than the Film Itself

Seth Rogen’s new film prompted him to ask some searching questions about Jewish education in the diaspora today and drew significant attention after his criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. But An American Pickle is a superficial portrait of Jewish experience in the New World and a corny rags-to-riches story of immigration.

Above all, An American Pickle wants to impress upon us the viability of the American dream.

If you’ve heard about the new Seth Rogen comedy An American Pickle, which premiered on HBO Max on August 6, it may be because of the controversy created by Rogen’s remarks about Israel made while he was promoting the movie. During an interview on the popular Marc Maron podcast WTF, Rogen commented freely about his Jewish upbringing, including the “huge amount of lies” he was fed about Israel as a boy attending Jewish schools and summer camps in Vancouver, British Columbia, especially the omission of any mention of displaced Palestinians:

They never tell you that, “Oh, by the way, there were people there.” They make it seem like, “The fuckin’ door’s open.”

Trying to manage the furor that erupted on Twitter, Rogen claimed to have been joking when he said “Israel doesn’t make sense” as a refuge for the Jewish people because “you don’t put all your Jews in one basket.” Supposedly at his mother’s urging, Rogen contacted Isaac Herzog of the Jewish Agency, who made a public effort to smooth things over, saying Rogen had been misunderstood and apologized. Rogen denied apologizing, but added in an interview for Haaretz, “I don’t want Jews to think I don’t want Israel to exist, and I understand how they could have been led to think that.”

Rogen’s scrambling to contain the scandal, presumably before he alienated any of the target audience for his movie, devolved into what Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss called “one of the most dispiriting stories we’ve ever covered,” all the more so considering that Rogen’s comments initially promised to spark meaningful public discussion:

It is dispiriting because a very serious discussion about Israel’s human rights abuses has been turned into a Jewish farce about a Jewish comic’s mother and the head of an international Jewish organization and all the great Jewish culture that made Seth Rogen the actor we know and love . . . But Rogen wasn’t talking about Jewish culture; he was talking about the depredations and ideological bankruptcy of the Jewish state, which is a Political Entity recognized as a valid state by most other countries in the world . . . And which has nukes and a captive population of millions of occupied Palestinians with no rights.

Given this dramatic context, it’s a shame that An American Pickle, which Rogen called “a very Jewish movie,” isn’t very interesting. Not much happens in it once its fantastical premise is established: in 1919, an Eastern European Jewish laborer and immigrant to America named Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) falls into a vat of brine at his pickle factory job and emerges perfectly preserved a hundred years later in a hipstified Brooklyn. There, he encounters his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Seth Rogen), a would-be app creator, and after an uneasy period of bonding, they fall out and become rivals over who can become a more successful entrepreneur.

Not surprisingly in a mainstream American film, certain traditional values of Herschel’s get affirmed in the end: the importance of family loyalty and the crucial role religion plays, especially in addressing the trauma of death. Ben’s values can’t be affirmed because he doesn’t have any except the default values of Western postmodernity — vague, unexamined rationalist skepticism. He’s portrayed as an unformed nebbish reliant on an array of gadgets that are all judged “pretty cool,” with no family, no career, no important relationships, and no major interests. He lives in an apartment in trendy Williamsburg, supported by the money from a settlement following his parents’ death in a car crash. He fusses endlessly over the supposed finishing touches on an app called Boop Bop. Of the latest color he’s chosen for the logo, Ben blathers, “I really like the mustard. If anything, it could even be a little more mustardy.”

Above all, the film wants to impress upon us the viability of the American dream. Like an old MGM film fable of the 1930s, defying the real-life experiences of its Depression-era audience, American Pickle portrays an amazing meritocracy that provides plentiful opportunities for immigrants — or for anyone who is even a little bit hard-working or resourceful. Egged on by Herschel, Ben finally gets up the nerve to present his app, which rates the ethical credibility of all products with an instant thumbs-up or thumbs-down. He’s on the verge of selling it for big money to the first corporate investor he approaches, when Herschel inadvertently sabotages the deal.

And Herschel, homeless after getting thrown out of Ben’s apartment, is an overnight sensation with his old-world pushcart used to sell pickles he makes featuring extra-strength brine. “I can smell it with my eyes,” enthuses a stereotypical hipster customer wowed by the pickles’ artisanal authenticity.

Ultimately, Herschel and Ben settle their differences and create a family business — Herschel will make the old-time pickles, and Ben will do PR for the product using his newfangled tech skills, including some sort of immediately successful pickle-buying app, one presumes.

Watching this last ideological plot point unfold is a bitter pill to swallow in these hard times. It’s just that easy, huh? A quick montage depicting a little bit of effort, and you’re rich — and maybe famous, too. The streets of America are still practically paved with gold, just like they used to tell immigrants back in 1919.

This kind of old-fashioned hooey is especially galling when you consider that the source material for the film was a novella called “Sell Out” by Simon Rich, published in two parts in the New Yorker. Rich is a young man of remarkable success who’s coasted along a smooth career path from Harvard University and being president of Harvard Lampoon to writing for Saturday Night Live, McSweeney’s, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Pixar. In a recent Vulture profile, Rich spoke of his inspiration for the story in thinking about the hardscrabble lives of his Eastern European Jewish ancestors. They would “possibly want to beat me up,” he said, referring to this cushy life of privilege.

What’s left out of the Vulture interview is very telling. By omitting to explain how Rich acquired such a life of privilege, it implies that he’s merely accessed the endless opportunities offered to those who merit them by our comfortable American way of life, as so often portrayed in mainstream media. What the Vulture interview doesn’t mention is that Rich is the son of Frank Rich and Gail Winston. Frank Rich is a writer for New York magazine, a former longtime columnist and editor for the New York Times who previously did stints at Time magazine and the New York Post. He also serves as a creative consultant for HBO, with producing credits on Veep and Succession. Gail Winston is a VP and executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers. If you want to go further into the thing, Simon Rich’s brother is Nathaniel Rich, a novelist and essayist who also writes for all the sleekest publications, and their stepmother, Frank Rich’s current wife, is Alex Witchel, a novelist and staff writer for the New York Times.

Get the picture? That’s the more interesting story behind “Sell Out” and An American Pickle. Somebody’s got to make the initial fortune at some point in a family’s history, but as a rule, after that, dynastic wealth and influence determine who gets ahead and stays ahead.

Admittedly, it’s hard to make real-life material like that into a heartwarming new movie version of an old fable many Americans still desperately want to believe.