by Julian Spivey
Director: Brandon Trost
Starring: Seth Rogen & Sarah Snook
Runtime: 1 hour & 28 minutes
The first ever HBO Max original movie “An American Pickle” has a wacky as hell premise and thus shouldn’t work. It should be dumb as hell and filled with immature slapstick and one-liners. It should be the kind of movie I would look it and go, “nah, I’m good.” I had every intention of doing so, but I watched the trailer and that intrigued me enough to give it ago on a quiet Friday night during a pandemic that has me and many others striving for any new entertainment we can find.
My god is the premise for “An American Pickle” wacky as hell – a Jewish immigrant moves to New York City and gets a job as a rodent killer in a pickle factory before falling into a vat of pickles right as the factory is being shut down and is brined for 100 years before entering this new world exactly as he had been a century before.
It’s a fish-out-of-water tale written by Simon Rich, based on a short story of his, and is his first movie script. Directed by Brandon Trost (in his solo directorial debut), “An American Pickle” stars Seth Rogen in a dual role as Herschel Greenbaum, the immigrant who gets brined, and his great grandson Ben (his only living relative).
What really makes the movie work for me is it being a “man out of his time” story and the realization that if any of us where ever essentially frozen in time as Herschel was we’d have an extremely hard time adapting to life a century later. We’d probably end up being “canceled” quite quickly.
The movie also works for me in that it doesn’t even remotely try to explain its premise, it just gives it to us. There is no attempt whatsoever to give us the science behind how a man could fall into a vat of pickles and be preserved for 100 years. That would’ve bogged the movie down too much and really would’ve made us wallow in how weird of a premise it is.
Ben is a freelance app developer who isn’t really living up to his potential because he’s too scared to fail. Herschel tries to get Ben to finally sell his app, but inadvertently destroys any success his app (which allows a consumer to scan a barcode and tells them how ethical the company behind the product is) when he gets the both of them arrested while assaulting a construction crew putting up an ad for a Russian vodka company (his community in his homeland was destroyed by Russian Cossacks) over the grave of his deceased wife.
Ben disowns Herschel, but Herschel’s hardworking can-do attitude leads him to find success doing what he knows how to do best – making pickles. Ben grows jealous of his great grandfather and comes up with a plan to destroy Herschel by outing his now controversial views on certain things that were common views a century before. If there is one negative about “An American Pickle” for me it’s this run of the film that drags a bit while the two are feuding.
The best part of “An American Pickle” is the dual performance from Rogen, who’s essentially the entire movie, except for the opening scene in whish Sarah Snook portrays his wife a century ago. I can’t imagine how much work it was for Rogen and director Trost to film this movie with Rogen constantly having to act opposite of a stand-in.
What’s most surprising about the film and Rogen’s performance is how downplayed it is – it’s not at all slapsticky and vulgar as one might expect from a Rogen film – but heartwarming. It’s nice to see this kind of performance from Rogen and I sincerely hope it’s something we see more of from him in the future.
by Philip Price
Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Josh Whitehouse & Jessie Ennis
Runtime: 1 hour & 42 minutes
Having not seen the original “Valley Girl” I was completely down for the level of ‘80s nostalgia and amount of Jessica Rothe (“Happy Death Day”) director Rachel Lee Goldenberg would be bringing in her re-make of the 1983 film that starred Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. I mean, giving Rothe her “La La Land” dues would have ultimately been enough to make the time and money worth it and in regards to Rothe as a performer and the opportunity this affords her in broadening the case of her talent it does a fine enough job, but unfortunately the movie overall is more earnest than it is aware which unfortunately ends up sucking a lot of the fun that seems to be bubbling just beneath the surface out of the equation. It’s difficult to tell if this has more to do with a pacing issue or the lack of chemistry between Rothe and Josh Whitehouse (filling the role originated by Cage), but the lack of energy and inventiveness in the majority of the musical numbers combined with the desire for them to be received as critical and credible rather than giddy and absurd genuinely detracts from and makes a difference in the impact the film could have, but doesn’t make. This is also essentially an ‘80s set version of “Grease” which in turn was a more modern day take on Romeo & Juliet meaning there needs to be a bigger hook than just the narrative concerning star-crossed lovers. Whether those hooks be the music or the investment in the love story or whatever else a person with a particular vision might latch onto in their interpretation 2020’s jukebox musical version of “Valley Girl” just doesn’t have any of them; leaving viewers longing for a soul that clearly exists, but can’t seem to escape the sheen it’s encased in. Acting less like punks and more like actual, indulgent rock stars would have taken this thing a lot further.
There are plenty of topics up for discussion around this updated “Valley Girl,” both good and bad, as one could discuss how the framing device with Alicia Silverstone and Camila Morrone isn’t really necessary or how between this and the underrated “Life of the Party” that Jessie Ennis is low-key becoming a great comedic character actor. One could also discuss how much appreciation there is for having Nicole Byer stop by for a cameo as the deejay at the skating rink which allows her just enough room to ad lib some of the best lines in the movie. You know…one could even talk about the casting of Judy Greer and Rob Huebel as the parents of Rothe’s Julie Richman who are each always a joy in their own right, but how it’s Huebel who generates a genuinely moving moment that clearly and expertly conveys the only message “Valley Girl” really needed to hit home. And while we’re on the topic of compliments and as insane as this compliment may sound-there is a moment when the re-creation of 1980s Hollywood Boulevard is almost ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’-ish in nature. Seriously, I was fully in on this particular moment and was careful to take note of the car models and business signs that all rang true of the era, something I’m not typically keen to notice, but couldn’t help but bask in noticing the changes between it and Tarantino’s ‘60s-set opus last summer.
For all the momentum these constructive elements bring to the table though, the biggest component of a musical-the music-is what derails “Valley Girl” from capitalizing on all the goodwill a love story set in a decade everyone has rose tinted glasses for at the moment featuring music from that same decade would seemingly have. In essence, the updated versions of the songs featured in the film lack an edge to them and instead sound like a "Kidz Bop goes 80's compilation” where the Kidz Bop kids are starting to mature, but still want to record under the same banner. Worse even is the fact the song choices are obvious, on the nose, and played out. The lone exception is the film’s rendition of "Under Pressure" which is the only selection that actually feels creative in how the song and lyrics are integrated into the narrative and filmmaking language. Much like the tone of the film overall, the musical numbers never fully lean into the sillier, more frivolous aspects of what is occurring and instead are played as serious odes to romance and the ideological divide between the youth and the old. But I mean … if the name of your movie is “Valley Girl” the last thing it should be doing is taking itself seriously.
That the movie doesn’t know how goofy it is and doesn’t lean into how much it’s knowingly turning the eighties up to eleven in every aspect of its set design, wardrobe, verbiage, and the romanticizing of it all forces the acknowledgement that something is off; that whatever Goldenberg and co. wanted this to be while making it doesn’t translate in the thick of the scenes themselves. Still, it’s easy to admire and even give the film a pass due to the aforementioned earnestness of how goofy the presentation is. Viewers, myself included, consistently hope for greater heights to be reached as our core group of girlfriends sing a melody featuring “Material Girl”, “I Can’t Go for That” and “Tainted Love” while bouncing around in extremely outlandish workout clothes complete with mountains of spandex and plenty of leg warmers, but it ends up only feeling like the movie wants us to be more impressed with it than in on the fun of it to the point it would almost feel rude to call it silly … but it’s totally silly.
by Julian Spivey
Muppets Now – Disney+ - 7/31, 8/7, 8/14, 8/21, 8/28
Who doesn’t love The Muppets? While I kind of wish this were just a reboot of the Muppets series that aired on ABC for one season a few years back, it’s nice to have a brand new Muppets series the entire family can enjoy. “Muppets Now” premiered on Disney+ yesterday and will drop a new episode every Friday in August. The show is said to be essentially three shows in one with segments of a game show, cooking show and a talk show and will be unscripted, which is the part that somewhat disappoints me. But, hey our favorite Muppet friends like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo and many more will be involved so it’s bound to have some laughs.
City Slickers – Hulu – 8/1
Chances are you’ve already seen “City Slickers,” as it’s almost 30 years old, but if you haven’t you’re truly missing out on one of the greatest comedies of the ‘90s. “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal’s second best starring comedy after “When Harry Met Sally” in my opinion, follows a group of New York City friends going through a mid-life crisis as they take part in a Western cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado and get some sage advice from the wily old Curly Washburn (Jack Palance in an Oscar-winning performance) along the way.
Jojo Rabbit – HBO Max – 8/1
One of the best movies of last year makes its way to streaming on HBO Max at the beginning of the month, Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” which tells the story of Hitler Youth member Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis) and the Jewish girl (played by Thomasin McKenzie) his sympathetic mother (Scarlett Johansson in an Oscar-nominated role) is hiding in their home. It’s a nice morality tale about how if you get to know folks that aren’t like yourself you might find they aren’t so bad. The movie is billed as a comedy-drama and there are certainly funny aspects, like Waititi’s effeminate portrayal of Adolf Hitler, but don’t go in expecting a constant laugh riot – it’s a heavy film. Waititi’s terrific script won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
An American Pickle – HBO Max – 8/6
“An American Pickle,” the very first HBO Max original film, will premiere on Thursday, August 6 on the streamer. The film directed by Brandon Trost (who’s collaborated with Seth Rogen on many projects) stars Rogen as a struggling laborer who immigrates to America in the 1920s and accidentally falls into a vat of pickles at his factory job and is brined for 100 years. He’s preserved perfectly and emerges in modern-day Brooklyn. Being a Rogen film “An American Pickle” could be hilarious, it could be incredibly stupid or it could be a mixture of the two.
Ted Lasso – AppleTV+ - 8/14
Taking a character that was created for soccer promos on NBC Sports and developing an entire show around it might be a bit of a longshot, but I remember chuckling a good deal years ago when I saw these promos of Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach named Ted Lasso who was hired to be a soccer coach in England, where of course the sport is known as football. The idea of this, I presume Texan, college football coach entering into a sport he has no experience with seems incredibly funny to me, especially with Sudeikis at the helm.