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What Prickled Me About ‘An American Pickle’

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Nathan Abrams rants about why he didn’t like An American Pickle.

I was looking forward to watching An American Pickle, Seth Rogen’s latest movie. As I have written here, I am a fan of his films, and the furore caused by his appearance on the Marc Maron show only intensified my expectations.

An American Pickle did not live up to them.

This was not because of its schmaltzy Jewishness or lack of authentic Jews. It wasn’t because of the lack of religion (try reading the story it was based on, it has even less Judaism!).

It wasn’t because Rogen never mentioned the Holocaust or Israel. It wasn’t because it was shot in Philadelphia but was meant to be set in New York so didn’t look right. It wasn’t because there wasn’t one Haredi in sight. All of this is nitpicking navel-gazing.

No, I didn’t like it because it wasn’t funny. If there is one thing we expect from a Rogen movie, it’s humour (although to be fair Pineapple Express and Zack and Miri Make a Porno were pretty poor). And why wasn’t it funny? It wasn’t funny because, as Jewish Currents pointed out, ‘this is a movie that is all about pickles and has no dick jokes and no sex.’

They put their finger right on it. An American Pickle is a very chaste movie. There, I said it. Who would have thought of putting the words ‘chaste’ and ‘Rogen’ in the same sentence ever?

After all, this is the guy who made Sausage Party, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad. Sausage Party is about a Jewish wiener trying to make it with a shiksa bun. Superbad has a ten-minute monologue about which online porn subscription to take out. I haven’t even touched on the other two.

The absence of sex isn’t helped by the lack of women in An American Pickle. There is one meaningful female character, Herschel’s wife Sarah, but she dies after a very brief amount of time on screen. They do have offscreen sex, though. We know that Herschel and Sarah reproduce because Ben wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t.

Ben, on the other hand, as played by Rogen, is one of his typical men-children although with a greater emotional depth usually lacking in his typical onscreen characters. But, unlike in the original short story, he has no girlfriend. He doesn’t have sex (not once).

On this point, Jewish Currents pontificates, ‘There’s a giant pickle-shaped hole where the phallus isn’t. The sexlessness of the movie must be part of why it feels so dead, why the vision of Jewishness that it offers is basically a death cult.’

Who cares? What does it matter what vision of Judaism and Jewishness the movie offers? It’s not a Chabad lecture, a rabbinic sermon, or an Israel tour. Simply put: What’s the point of a Rogen movie without sex, or weed, for that matter?

The problem with An American Pickle is that it tries to be too Jewish in the worst way. It took Simon Rich’s original story — which to me seemed more of a satire of Brooklyn hipsters and their desire for no-chemical, local, artisanal produce contrasting with Herschel’s desire to make a buck (hence the title of the story, ‘Sell Out’) — and tried to turn it something meaningful about Judaism and its rituals.

Since when did we last go to a Seth Rogen movie to learn about Judaism and its rituals or to get something meaningful? Please, there’s enough bad movies about this out there (go watch Keeping the Faith, which celebrates its twentieth birthday this year, or Keeping Up with the Steins). Besides, if you need to find something meaningful in Judaism via a movie then there’s something wrong with you — and Judaism.

Seth, go back to being you. Be the Seth who was on the Marc Maron podcast. Go back and remake An American Pickle. Just don’t bother trying to teach us any lessons this time. And put some dick jokes in it.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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