Few American actors have stayed in their lane as consistently as Seth Rogen, whose raspy stoner chuckle radiates with what-you-see-is-what-you-get conviction. An American Pickle turns that archetype inside out: Playing both an Eastern European Jew tossed into modern-day New York City through the magic of the brining process, as well as that same character’s bumbling modern-day great-grandchild, Rogen’s bizarre dual performance explores the roots of the slacker archetype in Jewish guilt. It’s entirely a one-note joke — Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof meets Encino Man — and Rogen runs with it as far as he can, while the movie struggles to keep pace. Pitched somewhere between outrageous satire and sincerity, the movie has a tough time finding its priorities, but it’s endearing throughout to watch the film try to find its way. After all, that’s the same conundrum facing Ben Greenbaum, the modern-day New Yorker tasked with orienting Herschel Greenbaum to 21st century life even as the descendant has a hard time figuring out his own role in it.
This is all directed by cinematographer-turned-director Brandon Trost and written by Simon Rich, who’s adapted his own short story, Sell Out. And the concise roots of short-form storytelling surely show: The bulk of the movie’s appeal is established within the first ten minutes, and it mostly coasts from there, as even the zanier twists rely on Rogen’s goofy turn; with things often feeling enjoyably laid-back or rushed. It also helps that those ten minutes are so satisfying on their own terms that they help sustain the fragmented story to come. Shot in the boxy academy aspect ratio and with an early cinema color palette, the prologue to An American Pickle encapsulates the history of Jewish immigration pre-WWII with a charming off-kilter energy that would make playwright Sholom Aleichem proud. With broken English filtered through a Yiddish accent, Herschel narrates the dramatic history of his young adulthood, beginning with his rough-and-tumble small town life in 1919 in the invented town of Schlupsk. It’s here that he courts soulmate Sarah (Sarah Snook) with the obvious romantic gesture of a smoked fish, and the pair get married at the center of town just in time for Cossacks to show up and slaughter their village.
It’s from there where Herschel and Sarah decide to immigrate to the U.S., they both beam with anticipation as they ride past the Statue of Liberty, and soon they’ve become typical Brooklyn immigrants loaded with confidence about the land of opportunity. In short order, Herschel makes bold predictions to his pregnant wife about the success of their offspring and finds potential as the manager of a pickle factory. Everything’s going his way just as a rat infestation scares him into a vat, where he remains frozen for generations to come. Nothing in American Pickle really matches the beautiful off-kilter storybook fantasy of its prologue, but overall it works very well at getting you hooked. Waking up in America circa 2019, Herschel finds himself poked and prodded by cartoonish scientists, dissected by the media, and just as easily forgotten. Sarah’s long gone, and he’s never met his son or grandchild, both of whom found plenty of success chasing the American dream. All Hershel has left is Ben, a lonely Brooklyn hipster desperate to sell his idea for a tech service nobody actually wants. A trim, glasses-wearing young man with misguided ambition, Ben’s certainly more mature than the type of Rogen characters the actor was playing fifteen years ago. But it’s easily to imagine him as somewhere on the same family tree as some of his other characters.
Ben provides a hilarious contrast with the ancestor that shares the screen with him. And Rogen captures a remarkable disconnect and awkward chemistry with, well, himself. It’s firmly the first time since Steve Jobs that he’s found material that actually pushes him into new territory, with this time actually letting him still use his comedic instincts. There’s not much to Ben aside from sadness that occasionally bursts into outright frustration, but that only gives Herschel more to push back on. Together, Rogen’s two characters are linked by solitude. Herschel is unmoored from his reality and mourning his wife, while Ben lost his parents in a car accident and lives a rather lonely life in his well-appointed apartment. Its in the quietist moments, like when Herschel and Ben sit down to marvel at old photos together, that make the biggest impression. The film doesn’t attempt to broach the darkest chapters of history that Herschel missed — there’s no discussion of the Holocaust, for example — but it does emphasize the sense of melancholy that its main characters share, even with their century of disconnect.
Soon though, tension does start to rise between the two men, when after an ill-conceived visit to the old family plot (where Herschel decides a billboard with a Smirnoff ad is the equivalent of a Russian invasion), the pair spend the night in prison and Ben decides he’s had enough with the family bonding thing. Herschel hits the streets, committed to showing his great-grandson what real work looks like; somehow, through an amusing montage of dumpster diving for cucumbers and filling jars with rainwater, he goes from wandering loon to artisanal pickle salesman, becoming a viral phenomenon in the process — all to spite Ben, and give him a lesson in determination. The ensuing war between the men unfolds under increasingly outrageous circumstances, and it’s here that American Pickle loses grasp of its material, careening into vast and unfocused satiric terrain: Herschel goes from enjoying life as a social media celebrity, to being condemned as a bigot, and ostracized as an immigrant, while the world of the movie turns out to be as exaggerated as its central character. As Herschel discovers the paradoxes of American society, the title of An American Pickle takes on a double-meaning as the movie aims for a savage takedown of the country’s exceptionalism, but it’s not quite sophisticated enough for the task at hand.
If An American Pickle had the nerve to go deeper, it might have mustered the complexity of the performance Rogen has pulled off here. Still, it’s pleasant enough to watch the actor nearly single-handedly rescue the high concept surrounding him. It’s also easy to see why a studio like Sony passed off An American Pickle to HBO Max, as the movie doesn’t exactly register as something easy to market. Nevertheless, there’s a certain appeal to the kind of escapism the movie offers that makes it readymade for the challenges of the 2020 world. Herschel Greenbaum may not know what he’s doing, but that never stops his commitment, and he’s a welcome embodiment of survival against impossible odds. While Ben tends to marinate on his failures, Herschel charges forward, and a little chutzpah goes a long way. In the end, what makes An American Pickle distinct is its sweet and melancholic feelings towards the eternal questions of the past; it may be too brisk but the generational connections stay memorable.
An American Pickle is available to stream on HBO Max