Two New Films, "An American Pickle" and "Palm Springs," Reflect High Holiday Themes

September 4, 2020Wes Hopper

As the Days of Awe approach and we prepare for acts of self-reflection, repentance, and atonement, we can leave a little room for levity. Two recent film releases headlined by Jewish funnymen give us an opportunity to mark the Jewish new year with a few laughs and perhaps a better understanding of redemption. Palm Springs (Andy Sandberg) and An American Pickle (Seth Rogen) explore themes of personal accountability and reconciliation by playing around with the way we experience time.

In Palm Springs, Sandberg’s character, Nyles, attends a wedding weekend, and we quickly gather that he’s either the most carefree person on Earth or severely depressed (or, as it turns out, both). Maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) finds his breezy/borderline sociopathic behavior somewhat charming, and soon they’re wandering into the desert for what she assumes will be a one-night stand. Unfortunately for her, she becomes stuck in what Nyles casually refers to as “one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about.”

Since the Bill Murray nineties-era romantic comedy Groundhog Day, the infinite time-loop premise, in which characters relive the same day over and over, has almost become a genre unto itself. There’s the Tom Cruise sci-fi action movie Edge of Tomorrow, Jake Gyllenhaal’s sci-fi terrorism parable Source Code, and the recent limited series Russian Doll. The common thread is that main characters have to solve past mistake in order to escape back to reality.

In Palm Springs, it’s less what was done wrong on the day of the wedding than what the characters didn’t get right before the film’s events even began. When we meet Nyles and Sarah, the cynicism they drag around with them – at first the glue that brings them together – quickly leads to mistrust. Deep down, they know they may not be good people, and once they see that in each other, there’s little room for their relationship to grow. How, then, will they ever make amends, reconcile, and forgive?

On Yom Kippur, we’re instructed to ask forgiveness – but in order to ask, we must first acknowledge we’ve done something wrong to begin with. For Sarah and Nyles, the time loop is a preparatory they can’t escape until they come to terms with who they’ve been. For them, the first step toward forgiveness is the hardest.

In An American Pickle, the amends that must be made are not with the people we know but with the people we’ve forgotten – our ancestors. Instead of apologizing for our mistakes, we’re asked to examine the entire way we live in the world today.

Seth Rogen takes the idea of what our ancestors might think of us in a very literal direction. His character, Herschel Greenbaum, is a poor ditchdigger in a rural shtetl named Schlupsk. Herschel wants to become rich, which he expresses in the wish: “Someday before I die, I would like to taste seltzer water. To feel the bubble tickling my tongue.” In order to achieve his dream, he comes to (where else?) America. Unfortunately, his first job is short-lived, as he tragically falls into a vat of pickles. Preserved by the brine, he awakens 100 years later in our present, to find he has a single descendant left – Ben Greenbaum, also played by Rogen, who he moves in with.

Like, Palm Springs, time travel is the hook for Rogen’s story, too, but here, it’s of the Sleeper variety – and indeed, An American Pickle has much in common with the Woody Allen film, including a scathing critique of our modern lifestyle. Greenbaum is the consummate Brooklyn hipster, living off his parent’s money in a spacious loft apartment, spending his time fiddling with an app he’s been working on for nearly five years. Herschel regards Ben’s apparent disrespect for family an even worse character flaw than his lackadaisical work ethic. When they visit the grave of Herschel’s late wife in a derelict patch of grass overshadowed by a giant billboard, Herschel finds Ben’s indifference inexcusable.

The resulting tension between the two fuels the twists and turns that follow as Herschel embarks on creating a pickle empire, and as Ben does everything he can to stop him. In their quest to one up one another, Ben and Herschel do terrible things. In the end, it will take an act of world-spanning reconciliation to heal them.

While Herschel is presented as the out-of-time anachronism, full of outdated views that today we find reprehensible, he is far more sympathetic than Ben, who is a walking, talking display of selfishness. He lives alone and has no friends, his single-minded pursuit to make something of himself from the lonely confines of his apartment. He’s so closed off, that he barely thinks about the existence of anyone else. Everything Herschel does, on the other hand, is for family and, in a way, for Ben. There’s poignancy at the end of the film, when Ben finally takes the first tentative steps toward something larger than himself. It’s as if Rogen wants us to address the values we’ve lost to the past, where the real reconciliation needs to happen.

Both films show us ways to examine our flaws and make amends, either with the people we’ve wronged or for the ways we’ve scorned the sacrifices of those who came before us. Together, they make for a powerful double-feature to kick off the High Holidays.

They will make us think – but maybe more importantly in these times, they will also make us laugh.

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