Viral Videos: Two Streaming Views of the American Dream

Published on Aug 10, 2020

Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (l) and the Documentary “Knock Down the House” (r)

We’re less than three months away from Election Day, a time when political incumbents and wanna-bes chase their own dreams while claiming they can help their constituents achieve their own versions of the American Dream. And so it is that this week, I take a look at two distinctly different movies – HBO’s new Seth Rogen immigration comedy, An American Pickle, and the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, which details the 2018 congressional campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women – that serve up tales of aspiration in America.

First up, Pickle tells the story of a father and great-grandson who meet under unusual circumstances. Rogen plays both the roles of Herschel Greenbaum – an East European Jewish immigrant who comes to New York City in 1920 with his wife, child and very little else – and his great-grandson Ben, a struggling web app developer in the present day.

Herschel has a thankless job killing rats in a pickle factory and falls into a vat of highly salted pickles just before its lid is sealed and the factory is abruptly closed by health officials. A full century later, two young boys exploring the abandoned factory knock the vat’s lid loose and Herschel springs up, still alive and incredibly well preserved – or. should I say, pickled – from the salty brine, forced to contend with the new unknown world that emerged in his absence.

Ben sees Herschel, his only surviving relative, in a TV news conference and seeks him out. Ben takes Herschel in, sparking a comical clash of centuries and cultures. The two quickly wind up fighting, and Herschel storms out on his own, becoming wildly popular making and selling artisanal pickles on the streets of Brooklyn.

But as Ben struggles to find investors for his app, he’s angered by Herschel’s success eclipsing his own – and sets out to ruin him. Will he pull it off?

Pickle was supposed to open in theaters last weekend through Sony Pictures, but with theaters closed indefinitely due to the Covid pandemic, the comedy instead debuted on the new streaming platform HBO Max. A couple of other major movies have followed similar release patterns – such as Tom Hanks’ World War II submarine thriller Greyhound, which is streaming on Apple TV+.

But while Greyhound would have been better served as an epic big-screen experience, the more intimate confines of home viewing plays to the advantage of Pickle.

This isn’t a typical Seth Rogen comedy by any stretch of the imagination; rather, it is a sweet-spirited PG13 film rather than a raunchy, R-rated farce. He is clearly trying to stretch himself here, and he pulls off his dual roles with surprising comic and, more important, emotional depth.

Writer Simon Rich’s smart script and the handsomely mounted direction by Brandon Trust serve up a steady stream of amusing chuckles rather than belly laughs, but it works well when combined with some astute satirical points, in which Herschel’s cluelessly outdated sexist beliefs arouse both controversy and a fan base. Many of Rogen’s usual fans have been attacking Pickle in IMDB reviews for departing from their expectations, and I can see their point. But this is a very well-made film with plenty of appeal for viewers simply open to a good movie, rather than a branded Rogen experience.

Meanwhile, Knock Down the House (2019) is director Rachel Lears’ portrait of how AOC and several other female candidates sought to capture seats in the House of Representatives by riding a wave of backlash against President Trump’s controversial record with women. The other candidates include Cori Bush, who lost that year but just recently pulled off a surprising Democratic primary win in Missouri against incumbent William Lacy Clay who, along with his father, had controlled his district for more than 50 years.

Alternating between the campaigns of those two rising political stars as well as a few that failed, House offers both an inspiring look at average citizens stepping up to fight for a better America and an occasionally sad portrait of the difficulties in emerging victorious as an outsider. Lears does a good job of bringing these women from disparate cultures and geographic regions to life, while also serving as a primer on the can-do, must-win spirit that drove them all on their paths.

As we prepare to cast our votes Nov. 3, Knock also serves as an absorbing primer on the campaign process. While all its candidates are progressive Democrats, the human side of their stories and the passion they bring to their lives makes this universally affecting. With AOC likely to be a leading voice for many years to come, it also illuminates what drives the controversial congresswoman, making this a must-see for political junkies of any stripe.

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