By Elias Savada.
I know a lot of people who would love The Pickle Recipe, a low budget feature (made lower by Michigan’s now-defunct location incentive program), about a grandmother’s treasured secret cucumber process and the family members trying to claw it away from her. “A metaphor for life,” according to actor-turned-producer-and-director Michael Manasseri, best recognized half his lifetime ago as Wyatt Donnelly, one of the stars of USA Network’s 1990s hit sci-fi comedy Weird Science.
Yes, the film’s a comedy, barely, although the prologue is more a menu for a disaster flick. The Hora, that quintessential dance performed to the ancestral tune Hava Nagilah at all Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, is the centerpiece that goes awry and poor Joey Miller, apparently one of Detroit’s better known deejays catering to the Jewish crowd, sees his equipment go up in flames. I wish that were the case with the screenplay by Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson, which starts out cloying and ends up staying there for most of the film, with a brief respite at the end for a serving of unfulfilling remorse.
The premise of the film finds the likable Joey (Jon Dore), an honest yet down-on-his-luck single dad in need of a pick-me-up after the wedding fiasco. He becomes part of a nasty, bitter plan hatched by his uncle Morty (David Paymer, giving Bernie Madoff a run for his money). Morty is the ultimate self-centered troll, a closet pyromaniac (“I love fires!”) and the only salvation in securing the $20,000 that Joey needs to buy new equipment. What? No crowdsourcing campaign for all the rich parents whose kids he entertained through the years? Instead, the writers go in another direction, pushing the burdens of Job (well, a friendly, somewhat enlightened, and uninsured variety) on the lad, by letting us know that his house has been turned over to the bank, his credit cards maxed out, that he’s behind on child support, and all his friends are broke. Yet, he still has a nice, recent vintage van to drive around, instead of a dilapidated piece of rust? Frankly, it looks like the film’s appeal seems to parallel its hero’s low credit rating.
So, with a daughter’s bat mitzvah weeks away (and presuming the snooty, now-rich ex-wife picking up the tab), the only silly solution is to pilfer grandma Rose’s pickle recipe. You expect and get the stereotypical set-ups, including the stack of overdue bills piled all-too-nicely on a small table in Joey’s modest apartment. Or the snobbish guy playing spoiling step-dad to Joey’s 13-year-old kid. I couldn’t find anything original going on here. The more I watched the film, the more agonizing the stereotypes became.
As for Grandma Rose (the stellar Lynn Cohen, who has seen much better scripts), she’s played as a vibrant woman stubbornly set in her own happy ways, running the deli with her late husband’s name, wisecracking with her three diverse wait staffers, and serving pickles widely appreciated by her Motor City customers. Despite the apparent disconnect between Rose and Joey, which includes a far-fetched scene involving a birthmark in a hidden body area, I found numerous other script problems surrounding the grandmother-grandson relationship.
When all else seems to fail, the plot detours to a local drug dealer who attempts to reverse engineer the pickle. Or having Joey’s idiot friend Ted (a somewhat funny Eric Edelstein) trying to pick granny’s little locked treasure chest or recipes.
Hijinks abound with other dreary ideas to find the gold at the end of the pickle rainbow, but instead the film tries to make fun of various Jewish traditions – the challah bread, a dreidel, the Sabbath candles and Kiddush cup in an effort to masquerade Ted as a rabbi. Believe me, the less you understand why, the better.
Alas, the downfall of each scene – as well as the film – are the stiff, wink-wink set-ups and the clownish, telegraphed punchlines. And those thoughtless continuity issues, such as when Rose is laid up, business at her deli literally disappears. Detroiters apparently can easily forget the mouth-watering pastrami sandwich. No homemade pickles, no hometown patrons.
And, this being a film shot in the seat of the U.S. auto industry, the requisite assembly line gets a cameo, as well as numerous shots of various local landmarks posted as shout outs to the possible out-of-state tourist who might wander toward Michigan. Toss in a psychic, a police bust, and some last-minute romance in this madcap mishmash, plus a dash of last-second remorse, and the film’s goofy menu turns stale.
Its table scraps tossed about in hope of striking a smile with some of its viewers, The Pickle Recipe leaves the laughs on the floor.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).