Review: ‘I Used to Go Here,’ starring Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks, Forrest Goodluck, Zoë Chao and Jorma Taccone

August 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement in “I Used to Go Here” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“I Used to Go Here”

Directed by Kris Rey

Culture Representation: Taking place in Illinois, the comedy/drama film “I Used to Go Here” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, one African American and one Native American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Chicago-based writer in her 30s, who’s going through some issues in her career and personal life, is invited to be a guest speaker at her university alma mater, where memories of her college experiences make her feel insecure about her current life. 

Culture Audience: “I Used to Go Here” will appeal mostly to people who like realistic independent dramedies about life during and after college.

Josh Wiggins, Gillian Jacobs, Khloe Janel and Forrest Goodluck in “I Used to Go Here” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Anyone who has ever been to a class reunion, gone back to visit a school they used to attend, or had a conversation with a former classmate after years of not speaking to each other can probably relate in some way to the low-key but engaging comedy/drama film “I Used to Go Here.” Written and directed by Kris Rey, “I Used to Go Here” goes on an emotionally authentic journey with someone who is reminded of the hopes and dreams she had in college, as she comes to terms with how her life has turned out so far.

The movie opens in Chicago, where writer Kate Conklin (played by Gillian Jacobs), who’s in her late 30s, is on a conference call getting some bad news from two people who work for her book publisher. Her first novel, a love story titled “Seasons Passed,” has recently been published, but sales have been disappointing. As a result, her book tour has been cancelled.

The book representatives give Kate a glimmer of hope by telling her that The New York Times will be publishing a review of the book. If the review is positive, Kate’s book tour could be resurrected. They assure her that the book’s commercial failure has a lot to do with declining book sales in general, but something about the patronizing tone in the voices indicates that it’s a canned comment that they tell authors whose book sales are flopping.

In the meantime, Kate (who is single and has no children) is experiencing some breakup blues. She’s not completely over the end of her relationship with her former fiancé Michael, who used to live with her. (It’s never revealed in the movie why they broke up or how long they were together.)

When Kate goes through some of her mail at her apartment, she sees that Michael has gotten some junk mail delivered to the address. And she uses it as an excuse to call him. She gets his voice mail and leaves a message to tell him that he’s still getting “important” mail at her address, and she asks him to call her back because “it would be nice to talk to you.”

As if it isn’t made clear enough that Kate is supposed to look like a sad and lonely spinster, there’s a scene of her looking forlorn at a baby shower where she seems to be the only woman there who isn’t a wife or mother. Someone asks Kate to get in a photo with three pregnant woman at the party, and she uncomfortably agrees to be in the photo.

One of the pregnant women is Kate’s close friend Laura (played by Zoë Chao), who has known Kate since their college days at the fictional Illinois University in Carbondale, where Kate graduated 15 years ago. (The real-life university in Carbondale is Southern Illinois University.) Throughout the movie, Kate and Laura call each other to give updates on their lives and provide emotional support for each other.

Not long after her book tour has been cancelled, Kate gets some good news that lifts her spirits: David Kirkpatrick (played by Jemaine Clement), her favorite professor from Illinois University, has called to invite her to be a guest speaker at the university, where she will do a lecture that includes reading excerpts from “Seasons Passed.” Kate was in David’s creative writing class in the first year that he was a professor, and she was his star student. Kate is flattered by the invitation and immediately says yes.

Carbondale is about 330 miles from Chicago, so the university provides for Kate’s travel and living accommodations during her visit. They arrange for Kate to have an on-call driver: a friendly and nerdy student named Elliot (played by Rammel Chan), who seems to be attracted to Kate when they first meet. When Elliot genuinely tells Kate that he’s a big fan of her, he does so in a sweet and endearing way, not in a creepy or stalker-ish way.

The university has arranged for Kate to stay at a bed-and-breakfast house that happens to be directly across the street from the house where Kate used to live when she an Illinois University student. The woman who owns the bed-and-breakfast house is named Mrs. Beeter (played by Cindy Gold), who has a cold and abrupt demeanor when she tells Kate the “house rules.”

One of the rules is that Mrs. Beeter gives guests only one set of keys. If the keys are lost, the guest might be locked out of the house. Mrs. Beeter has the keys on a lanyard, and she insists that Kate wear the lanyard to decrease the chance of the keys getting lost. It’s at this moment that viewers can predict that Kate will at some point lose the keys and be locked out of the house.

When Kate meets up with David on campus before her guest lecture, it’s clear that there’s some mutual but unspoken attraction between them. Shortly after they begin talking, a woman comes over to David, and he introduces her as his wife, Alexis (played by Kristina Valada-Viars), whom he’s been married to for five years. The disappointed and surprised look on Kate’s face indicates that she was hoping that David would be single and available.

Kate and Alexis exchange pleasant “nice to meet you” talk. Alexis tells Kate, “David talks about you all the time.” David, looking slightly embarrassed, says: “Well, not all the time.” It’s another sign of some underlying feelings that David might have toward Kate.

Kate’s lecture, which was hosted by the university’s creative writing department, goes fairly well, despite Kate’s initial nervousness. Afterward, David invites Kate to have dinner with him and Alexis. Some tension in Alexis and David’s marriage starts to show when David blurts out that Alexis doesn’t like Kate’s book “Seasons Passed.”

It’s now Alexis’ turn to be embarrassed, and she reluctantly admits that she didn’t feel emotionally connected to the book after reading it. Kate graciously accepts the criticism, but the negative feedback makes Alexis uncomfortable enough that she excuses herself to go to the ladies’ room. Before Alexis leaves the table, she calls David an “asshole” in front of Kate, who gives Alexis a knowing smile, as if to say, “I know he can be a jerk too.”

While Alexis is in the restroom, David tells Kate that there’s an opening in the university’s creative writing department, and he wants to recommend her for the job if she’s interested. David is very eager for Kate to become his co-worker, but she’s not ready to make that decision right then and there, so she doesn’t give an answer.

The next day, Kate is taking a selfie in front of the house she used to live in as a college student, when one of the house’s residents comes out and introduces himself. His nickname is Animal (played by Forrest Goodluck), and when she tells him that she used to live there when she was a college student, he invites her inside. During her nostalgic tour of the house, she meets two other housemates: socially awkward Tall Brandon (played by Brandon Daley) and self-assured Hugo (played by Josh Wiggins).

Hannah marvels at how some of the unique touches that she put in the house (decorating one of the room’s ceilings with stars and having a writers’ corner in another room) are still there. She’s also thrilled to learn that most of the people in the house are interested in creative writing. Hugo isn’t interested in being a writer, but he mentions to Hannah that his girlfriend is in David’s class.

Later that day, Kate sits in on a class led by David (he invited her) and she sees that David has a new “star” student: Her name is April (played by Hannah Marks), and David seems to be in awe of her, which causes Kate to feel some envy toward April. Based on April volunteering to read a sample of her work in front of the class, April is a confident writer whose prose has a tone that’s edgy, sexually sensual and emotionally raw. It won’t come as much of a surprise (it’s not spoiler information) when Kate finds out that April is Hugo’s girlfriend.

There’s a scene in “I Used to Go Here” that could have been an outtake, but it seems to be in the movie because Jorma Taccone (of The Lonely Island comedy group fame) is one of the movie’s producers. (The Lonely Island members Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer are among the other producers of this movie.) In the scene, Taccone plays Bradley “Brad” Cooper, a former classmate of Kate’s who sees her by chance while she’s in Carbondale, and he invites her to have dinner and drinks with him.

During their dinner date at a local restaurant/bar, Brad turns out to be a jerk. He tells Kate that when he was in college, she was the woman he thought about the most when he masturbated, but he forgot all about her after all these years until he saw her again. Not long after the date starts, Kate finds out that Brad has also invited his “friend” Rachel (played by Kate Micucci) to join them on the date. Rachel and Brad then start making out in front of Kate, who sits and watches uncomfortably.

The rest of the movie involves circumstances that lead to Kate hanging out with the college students she met during her visit. The clique includes Animal’s girlfriend Emma (played by Khloe Janel). Even though Kate knows it’s kind of weird for someone in their late 30s to be partying with these college kids, the movie shows that in many ways Kate is trying to relive a time in her life when she was happier and more carefree. And seeing Dave again has brought up some unresolved feelings that Kate and Dave might have toward each other.

Movies with scenes of college students partying sometimes veer into slapstick comedy or over-the-top raunchiness, but writer/director Rey goes for realism throughout the movie, since everything that happens is entirely believable. “I Used to Go Here” also has some subtle commentary on the roles that women are often expected to have in society by the time they reach a certain age.

Kate isn’t the type of person who seems desperate to get married and have kids, but it does bother her that her career isn’t meeting the expectations she had when she was in college. There are multiple scenes in the movie where Kate is lauded as a “successful writer” by people at the university (usually the students give her this praise), but she humbly doesn’t see herself as a success, based on the goals she has for herself.

There’s also a well-written scene that shows some of the passive-aggressive cattiness that women can have toward each other when there’s envy or competition involved. Even though Kate feels like a “failure” inside, she tries to come across as superior to April when April shows Kate her work and asks for Kate’s feedback. In an attempt to deflate April’s confidence, Kate reminds April that she has less experience than Kate and that April isn’t a published author. Kate’s condescending attitude toward April has everything to do with Kate feeling that April has “replaced” Kate as David’s favorite student.

Kate’s self-esteem has also taken a hit because she’s feeling lonely after her breakup from her ex-fiancé Michael. Throughout the movie, Kate checks her phone to see if Michael has contacted her or to see what he’s posted on his social media. Some people might think that this behavior is pathetic, but a lot of people realistically do this after a painful breakup. (It’s pretty obvious that Kate was the one who was dumped.)

As the lovelorn but fairly optimistic Kate, Jacobs does a very good job with the role by making Kate emotionally vulnerable without being whiny or too needy. Jacobs has played these types of “smart but disappointed by life” women in movies and TV before, but that’s because she’s mastered the fine line between comedy and drama. The rest of the cast members are also quite good in their roles, with Clement once again showing that he has a knack for playing egotistical characters who are charming but might have sleazy ulterior motives.

“I Used to Go Here” is by no means a groundbreaking movie. However, it’s the type of movie that people can enjoy if they’re looking for a story where they see what happens during a few days when someone discovers how to reconcile expectations from the past with the realities of today.

Gravitas Ventures released “I Used to Go Here” on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020.

Review: ‘An American Pickle,’ starring Seth Rogen

August 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/HBO Max)

“An American Pickle” 

Directed by Brandon Trost

Culture Representation: Taking place in Brooklyn, New York, and in an unnamed Eastern European country, the comedy film “An American Pickle” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash:  In 1919, an immigrant worker at a pickle factory in Brooklyn has a freak accident that preserves him alive in a pickle vat for 100 years, and when he’s discovered in 2019, he experiences major culture shock that includes living with his great-grandson who looks just like him.

Culture Audience: “An American Pickle” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Seth Rogen or to people who like comedies about families, time travel or the immigrant experience.

Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/HBO Max)

In the comedy film “An American Pickle,” star Seth Rogen takes a break from the usual foul-mouthed raunchiness that he has in his live-action films and makes a sweetly sentimental statement about family love that is not bound by time. Rogen convincingly handles two roles in “An American Pickle”—Herschel Greenbaum and Herschel’s great-grandson Ben Greenbaum, who are two very different people from very different eras. Under the comic-book-styled direction of Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” (written by Simon Rich) provides satisfactory entertainment for people looking for some lightweight escapist comedy, but it’s not the type of movie that is going to be considered one of the funniest films of the year.

In the beginning of the movie, Herschel is a ditch digger in an unnamed Eastern European country in the early 1900s. Herschel and his good-natured wife Sarah (played by Sarah Snook) are poor but happily married. During their courtship, they confided in each other about their respective hopes and dreams. For Sarah, her dream is to be able to afford her own gravestone. For Herschel, he dreams of one day being able to drink seltzer water.

One day, Herschel and Sarah’s village comes under attach by Russian Cossacks, who invaded and caused destruction in the area, and causing many of the villagers to flee. Herschel and Sarah decide to move to the United States. Their arrival at the U.S. immigration checkpoint is a quick biting commentary on the prejudices that await non-English-speaking, non-Christian immigrants. The movie shows Jewish and Polish people shoved around and treated like cattle at the checkpoint, after getting a “Welcome to America” greeting.

Soon after arriving in America in 1919, Herschel and Sarah set roots in Brooklyn, New York, where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory. Sarah then finds out that she’s pregnant. Herschel thinks his job at the pickle factory will be a step up from ditch digging, but he’s assigned a job on the factory’s lowest end of the totem pole: He has to kill the rats that frequently run around the factory area.

One day, while chasing some rats at the factory, Herschel has a freak accident and falls into a large vat of pickles. His fall makes a large splash and causes a ruckus, but somehow, no one in this crowded factory notices. Almost immediately, like people moving props in a stage play, some factory workers put a locked lid on the vat, and Herschel is trapped inside. (It goes without saying that his movie requires huge suspensions of disbelief, where viewers have to ignore the idea that Herschel would shout for help or try to escape from the vat.)

At any rate, Herschel ends up being preserved alive in the vat for 100 years. In 2019, two teenage boys find the vat in the long-abandoned factory. Herschel is discovered alive, intact, and perfectly preserved. And he’s about to undergo major culture shock.

Herschel is taken to a hospital for medical tests. While undergoing testing, he finds out that his wife Sarah died in 1939. Herschel is upset about it, but knows there’s nothing he can do to bring her back.

During a press conference announcing Herschel as a medical miracle, skeptical reporters ask how Herschel’s existence could be possible, and they wonder if it’s a hoax. But then, medical experts at the press conference state that it’s medically possible, and the reporters quickly believe them. It’s an obvious send-up of how the media can easily swallow information from “experts” without doing their own investigations.

Herschel briefly stays in a hospital for tests, but he’s eventually let go after it’s discovered that he has a living relative named Ben Greenbaum. Ben happens to live in Brooklyn too (in a rented apartment), and he’s the same age that Herschel was in Herschel fell into the pickle vat. And so, Herschel goes to live with Ben, who is happy and surprised that he has a living relative.

Ben is unmarried and has no children or siblings. Ben’s parents David Greenbaum (played by Geoffrey Cantor) and Susan Greenbaum (played by Carole Leifer) died in car accident in 2014. And as a freelance mobile app developer, Ben works most of the time from home.

For five years, Ben been working on an app called Boop Bop, which reviews and rates companies based in the companies’ ethics. Ben is hoping to get major investments in the app to be able to sell it to a mass market of consumers, and eventually get rich by selling the app. Of course, all of this new technology is over Herschel’s head.

“An American Pickle” has the expected “fish out water” scenes of Herschel being amazed or having a hard time adjusting to life in 2019. Herschel is ecstatic when he sees that Ben has a seltzer machine that can make seltzer water any time he wants. But Herschel is completely confused by technology that has to do with computers, the Internet or mobile phones.

When Herschel and Ben take a walk outside and see a black man and a white woman holding hands, Herschel looks shocked. However, Ben tells him, “Interracial couples are cool now,” then he pauses and says, “in parts of the country,” in an obvious reference to the ongoing racism problems in America. And when Ben uses a scooter, Herschel scolds him: “You have legs. You don’t need these things.”

One of the best parts of “An American Pickle” is how it pokes fun at the neoliberal “hipster” culture of Brooklyn. While Herschel and Ben are walking down the street, a bearded hipster, who has on clothes that are similar Herschel’s, stops and compliments Herschel on his garb and asks if it’s vintage. A running joke in the movie is how Herschel sometimes misgenders a person, based on the length of their hair and if they’re wearing unisex clothes. (Females with short hair are mistaken as males, while males with long hair are mistaken as females.)

Back at Ben’s apartment, Herschel notices that Ben doesn’t have any pictures of family members on display. And so, Ben gets out his family photo album to tell Herschel about Herschel’s descendants whom Herschel never knew. It’s very important to Herschel that his descendants made something of their lives that would make him proud.

Herschel’s son Mort was a foreman of a brick factory. Mort’s son David (Ben’s father) was an accountant. All of this information makes Herschel very happy, but he notices that Ben finds it difficult to talk about his parents’ death. Ben and Herschel also have very different views on religion: Herschel is devoted to the Jewish faith, while Ben is an atheist. Herschel has a hard time understanding how Ben’s atheism.

A turning point in the story comes when Ben and Herschel visit Sarah’s grave, which is in a small, unkempt lot near a freeway. Herschel is offended that the gravesite is in such a run-down area. Herschel gets even more offended when he sees that a billboard overlooks the gravesite.

And it just so happens that some workers are replacing the old billboard with a new one, for an ad display of Russian vodka. See this ad triggers Herschel into thinking that Russian Cossacks are behind the ad, so he starts a fight with the billboard workers to try to stop them from putting up the billboard. The fight turns into an all-out brawl that lands Herschel and Ben in jail.

After they get out of jail, Herschel tells Ben that he’ll do whatever it takes to get rid of that Russian vodka billboard. Ben explains that it will take about $200,000 to buy a new billboard. And so, Herschel decides to start selling pickles at a street stand to raise money for the billboard.

Herschel’s pickles become an instant hit in Brooklyn, because the hipsters love that the “artisanal” and “organic” nature of the pickles and that it’s “locally grown.” When a gay couple named Christian (played by Eliot Glazer) and Kerin (played by Kalen Allen) pass by Herschel’s pickle stand, they are charmed by Herschel’s eccentric and “no filter” personality. Christian begins posting videos about Herschel on his social media, which become viral videos.

The local TV news takes notice, and Herschel and his pickles become even more popular. But not everything is going smoothly. Through a series of events, Herschel and Ben have a falling out, and they go to war with each other. Their family feud teaches them some lessons along the way about what’s important to them in life.

Despite some major plot holes and simplistic ways of getting around those plot holes, “An American Pickle” is enjoyable to watch overall because of Rogen’s talented ability to play two characters in ways that work well for this screenplay, which Rich adapted from his short story “Sell Out.” The movie’s supporting actors—including The Lonely Island comedy troupe member Jorma Taccone, in a cameo as a potential investor named Liam—are good-enough, but “An American Pickle” is really Rogen’s movie to carry as an actor, since he’s in every scene.

Even though Ben and Herschel are mentally the same age, Rogen does a very good job of portraying how each of these two characters’ life circumstances have affected their emotional development. Herschel became an adult during a time when people were expected to have religious beliefs and get married and have children by a certain age. Ben became an adult during a more open-minded time and place, where society allows more options for people.

Marriage, children and religion in modern-day Brooklyn are not “required” in order for society to think you have a fulfilling adult life. And because people’s life expectancy is longer than it was in 1919, there are more people like Ben who have an “arrested development” lifestyle, where it might take longer for adults to figure out what to do with their lives or achieve their life goals. It’s one of the reasons why Herschel is shocked that Ben has been developing his app for five years but still hasn’t sold the app.

There isn’t anything outstanding about Trost’s direction for “An American Pickle,” although the visual effects for the film at least look believable. “An American Pickle” isn’t a big slapstick movie, because the movie’s humor is a lot more low-key and satirical. There are many sly commentaries that make people think about the pros and cons of living in 2019, compared to the society that Herschel lived in 100 years prior. These comparisons bring up notions about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. The “culture shock” and “time travel” aspects of the story are really just ways to point out that family love can transcend space and time.

HBO Max premiered “An American Pickle” on August 6, 2020.

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