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‘An American Pickle’ – A Half-Sour Attempt to Mix Fish-Out-of-Water Comedy with Family Guilt

An American Pickle
Photograph Credot” Hopper Stone/HBO Max

The first original film for HBO Max and the feature directorial debut for cinematographer Brandon Troust, An American Pickle, sees Seth Rogen (​This Is The End​) pulling double duty in this unique approach to generational conflict.

The film, based on the 2013 short story ​Sell Out ​by ​Pickle ​screenwriter Frank Rich, follows Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) – a struggling Jewish ditch digger that comes to America with his beloved wife Sarah (Sarah Snook, ​Succession​) in order to escape the wrath of the Cossacks. Living in 1919 Brooklyn, Herschel picks up a job as a rat smasher at a local pickle factory and ends up falling into a vat of pickles. However, the brine in the pickles somehow preserves him for over one hundred years, and he ends up waking up in 2019. Although Sarah and their child, Mort, are long dead, Herschel finds that he still has one living relative left named Ben (also Rogen) – a reserved web app developer who lost his parents five years ago. Although the two are from completely different eras, they must come together to reconcile their beliefs about family.

The overall concept of ​An American Pickle​ is one that we’ve all surely debated at one time or another – what would someone of the past think or say about the technology, people, and overall mentality of today? What would it be like to meet your great-grandparents or an even older relative? How similar or different would they actually be from you. With An American Pickle​, we see this explored as we follow Herschel, who is overwhelmed by all of the new things that surround him. It’s pretty interesting to see him sort of marvel at the towering skyscrapers that surround him, but also show some resistance as he tends to solve his issues with his fists. Even his old and outdated views of religion tend to clash with today’s mindset, but it’s all stuff we’ve seen before.

Frankly, the film just doesn’t fully tackle its concept or flesh it out in any unique way. The second certain things, like a billboard ad for a new vodka, come across Herschel’s path, it’s pretty obvious how he’s going to react. A lot of times, things are so on the nose or Ben literally walks Herschel into such an obvious minefield, which is in the form of Twitter here, that there’s no real impact to Herschel experiencing a whole new era of humanity. It just creates this sense of impending doom that ultimately turns out exactly as you might expect. Herschel says some things that cause him to be a diverse presence, where he’s loved by some and despised by others, and we essentially see the bipolar nature of fan bases on social media. There’s even a moment where Ben shows Herschel how easy it is for him to get seltzer water, a commodity that was rare and a symbol of wealth to him in his time, but the moment doesn’t have any sort of emotional impact. It simply comes and goes and is a testament to how this film struggles to give any sort of emotional weight to its concept.

Really, the film can only create emotional weight when it’s dealing with the personal woes of Herschel and Ben, as Rogen gives two great performances. Oftentimes, the big worry of seeing someone play two characters on-screen together is that it’s going to be hard to tell them apart, but that’s far from the case here. Rogen actually puts in some impressive work as he makes Herschel and Ben come off like two unique performances that actually make you forget that you’re seeing double.

As Herschel, Rogen is instantly empathetic as it’s nearly impossible not to gravitate towards his simplistic pleasures and the happiness he feels towards Sarah. In some ways, when we initially meet Herschel, he seems to have the outlook on life that most people would want to have. A life full of love for his family and working hard to make a good living for said family. The opening does an excellent job introducing us to Herschel and making us instantly love his personality. Even when he’s saying offensive things or his bull-headed personality gets in the way, you don’t just instantly hate him – unlike a lot of the people in the film. It’s easy to understand that he doesn’t know any better and is often set up by Ben because his jealousy gets in the way.

As Ben, Rogen is the total opposite, and Ben’s views of family and work completely differs from Herschel. Losing both of his parents, falling off of his religious practices, and putting all of his focus and energy into his new business ethics app Boop Bop, Ben has sort of become disillusioned to the family values that Herschel has. There’s even this great conflict between them about how Ben has let the family cemetery appear shabby and unkept, which functions as a perfect display of how he doesn’t carry the same family values as Herschel. Hell, he even seems like he’s barely even happy to have Herschel around and is pretty much ready to cut him off after Herschel fist-thinking mentality gets him into an ethical dilemma. However, even with Ben knowingly trying to make Herschel look bad by using his old era beliefs to his advantage, it’s hard to hate him – especially when the film’s themes about family and grieving come to the surface.

For most of the film, the story is … fine. Rogen’s dual performances are strong enough to string viewers along and make the film’s humor, which isn’t the kind of humor Rogen typically works within, solid. An American Pickle isn’t the kind of stoner flick or raunchy film that we’re used to seeing from him, with more of the humor being derived from storytelling and character than shocking or sophomoric jokes. There’s a great moment where Herschel’s inner thoughts cut off a scientist explaining how he survived and it’s a funny way of the film recognizing it’s strange plot.

However, the humor doesn’t always hit, and the generational battle that takes place for most of the film between Herschel and Ben can’t carry the film on its own. In the end,  the film does manage to create a sense of empathy that leaves its story on the right note through a heartwarming reconciliation. The way they come to terms with how they tried to keep their family’s name and legacy alive creates this sense of empathy that’s very genuine and makes you realize why these characters come off so damn likable and real.

Even while not being able to capitalize on a compelling concept or being as comedically rich as some might expect, An American Pickle is a solid flick that’s elevated by Rogen’s great dual performances. In terms of pickle talk, the best way to describe it is that it just leaves you half-sour.

An American Pickle is currently streaming on HBO MAX.


Tom Moore
Tom Moorehttps://mooreviews.com/
Tom is always ready to see and review everything horrifying and hilarious that hits theaters, television, and video games...sometimes. You can check out his other reviews and articles on his blog, Mooreviews.

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