Seth Rogen has specialized in a certain type of schlubby character throughout his career, a persona that seems little removed from his real identity. But he’s also a highly shrewd producer whose credits show a willingness to try a wide range of different projects. The two sides of Rogen collide in the high concept An American Pickle.
Rogen starts off the film as Herschel Greenbaum, a man who immigrates to America from the fictional Eastern European nation of Schlupsk in 1920. In the film’s most out-there sequence, he finds work in a pickle factory, falls into a pickle barrel, is found alive 100 years later, and finds out that he has one last living relative, his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen).
At first happy to have found each other, the two soon find themselves at odds thanks to a century’s worth of change. Herschel values tangible hard work, such as the process of making pickles, while Ben is an app developer, where the results are not so easily defined. The film pits the two against each other, with Herschel finding success with his old-fashioned ways and Ben running into roadblock after roadblock.
Directed by Brandon Trost and written by Simon Rich, who adapted his own short story, the film is a mixture of over-the-top comedy and sentimentalism. Most of the film deals in heightened humor, like Herschel using literal trash to make his pickles, so the audience is primed not to take anything seriously. But the emotion of being part of a family layers on emotions, giving a sense of balance to a film that could have been all ridiculousness, all the time.
While the reasons Herschel and Ben disagree are natural given the environments in which both grew up, the film makes a bit too much of their spats. This is especially true on Ben’s side, as it’s never clear why Ben is so resentful of Herschel. And while the shots taken at the hipsters in Brooklyn are funny, they’re no more insightful or interesting than similar jokes that have been made for the last 10 years or so.
Remarkably, Rogen is much better as Herschel than he is as Ben. Using a vague Eastern European/Jewish accent and concealed by a voluminous beard, he’s boisterous but never hammy. The character’s path is ludicrous, but Herschel himself is fully-realized. However they achieved the goal of having two Rogens in one scene, it works like a charm throughout, with their interactions appearing seamless.
An American Pickle requires its viewers to suspend a lot of disbelief, but those willing to go along for the ride will find much to entertain them. More could have been made of the concept, but twice the Rogen ensures the film works most of the way through.
An American Pickle is streaming exclusively on HBO Max.