An American Pickle is a tale of two Seth Rogen comedies. While I’d hesitate to label either as the best or worst of times, one is at least pretty good, and the other not so much; one an unassuming slice of schmaltz, and the other a reheated leftover from decades-old dude-bro comedies. Between them lies a charming if slight experience, but even that’s as bisected as the shots in which Rogen appears on screen twice, first as an early 20th century Jewish immigrant who’s been essentially time-warped to the present, and then as his modern day great-grandson. The dueling impulses of this concept elicits a few chuckles, but like Rogen the Younger’s character, it never quite realizes its full potential.
Arriving on HBO Max on Thursday after originally being slated for a Sony Pictures release in 2020, An American Pickle comes as an unlikely beneficiary of the current moviegoing climate. In another time, this type of high-concept and low-yielding laugher would be a tough sell for the price of a single movie ticket (never mind two), yet there’s something appealing about American Pickle’s easygoing simplicity on the streaming market, particularly one as desperate for new content as ours. With all the setup of a barroom joke, and with about as much depth, An American Pickle asks what if you met your ancestor from 100 years ago? What would you think of them, and what would they think of you?
In the case of Rogen’s dual roles of Herschel and Ben Greenbaum, it’s only passingly complicated. The former hails from the fictional Eastern European country of Schlupsk, a land so grim that as the local ditch digger, Herschel has one of the better jobs. Nevertheless, after wooing a village girl named Sarah (Sarah Snook) to be his wife, he emigrates with his bride to New York City in 1919 to start a new life. Settled in Brooklyn, Herschel and Sarah are expecting a child to accompany their good fortune, which has seen Herschel find work at the local pickle factory as a rat catcher. But after a freak accident, Herschel winds up trapped inside a vat of brining pickles that goes abandoned for a century.
When that vat is miraculously opened in 2019, the well-brined Herschel is still alive but confused by a world that’s changed, a fact exemplified best by his mild-mannered descendant Ben (Rogen again). Expecting his great-grandchild to be a doctor or a lawyer, Herschel is befuddled to learn Ben is a freelance app designer, just as he is confounded by what exactly an app is. Yet as Ben tries to teach Herschel about the modern world and how to use iPads, seltzer water filters, and Twitter, Herschel is compelled to remind Ben of his roots and Jewish faith… and then maybe beat him at his own game by becoming a successful viral sensation as an artisanal pickle seller in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood.
As a fish out of water comedy, An American Pickle is meekly effective. Despite its cinematic brine being drenched in as much syrup as it is salt, there is a pleasant sweetness about the film’s early scenes in which Rogen plays Herschel relatively straight. While his accent is as broad as his ungainly beard, Rogen injects the older character with just enough sentimentality to make his more arch scenes as a man out of time enjoy a gentle affability, which can go a long way in a comedy so absent genuine belly laughs.
One imagines, however, that Ben Greenbaum’s frustration with his ancestor is supposed to be where the actual guffaws lie. Instead it’s where the movie runs into problems. Helmed by Brandon Trost in his directorial debut after being the cinematographer on previous Rogen comedies Neighbors and The Interview, An American Pickle has the same bland innocuous quality of most 21st century studio comedies. But such visual passivity undercuts Ben’s outward pettiness toward Herschel. With the film refusing to really frame its conflict from Ben’s point-of-view, the modern character’s irritation with Herschel plays as contrived and off-putting, as opposed to funny or endearing.
To compensate, there are some sincerely funny detours in Herschel’s sudden acceptance from the hipsters of Brooklyn who are always tweeting about “authenticity.” There are some also much less funny, and fairly half-baked, allusions to modern political norms, with Herschel being unsurprisingly racist and antiquated in his thinking. But as the movie’s own internal logic never allows anything a character actually says or does to matter, it only results with one of its two leads coming off as an insufferable ass.
With Rogen not being able to walk the line of playing an antagonistic and likable presence, the conflict of the film’s last half can barely sustain the movie’s scant 88-minute running time. And with the picture exploring its own internal logic about time travel or world events with the same level of commitment as a Saturday Night Live skit, An American Pickle reveals itself to be a thinly sketched story that might’ve worked best as a short film rather than a feature.
Nevertheless, by returning to the sheer appeal of the movie’s daydream—meet your ancestor and compare notes—there are about as many scenes where An American Pickle works as a mild-tasting cucumber, if not a spicy jalapeno. But then there’s a reason why something as bland and basic as a pickle remains a popular comfort food around the world. When it comes to streaming, I imagine comfort is exactly what many will seek.