'An American Pickle': Film Review

An American Pickle - Publicity still - H 2020
HBO Max
More sweet than sour.
8/6/2020

Seth Rogen plays both a Brooklyn app developer and his Eastern European immigrant great-grandfather, preserved in brine for 100 years, in this HBO Max comedy about cultural conflicts and family.

Depending how much weed you've smoked, the notion of a Jewish Encino Man crossed with a drolly humorous spin on Fiddler on the Roof might sound like the best or worst pitch you ever heard. Either way, the oddball mix of goofy '90s-style comedy with a big fat sentimental heart makes An American Pickle a tough movie to dislike. What elevates it above the often haphazard plotting of former Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich's script is the captivating dual-role performance of Seth Rogen, playing relatives divided by rivalry and misunderstanding before ultimately rediscovering the comforts of their shared heritage.

Rogen is an always likeable actor whose reputation was built largely on playing crude, sophomoric stoners. But there's an inherent sweetness in his screen persona that's been there since the very beginning on Freaks and Geeks, notably in the affecting story arc in which his befuddled character, Ken Miller, struggled with the revelation of his tuba-playing girlfriend Amy's intersex birth origins. It's a variation on Ken — the tender, passionate bear of a guy occasionally stymied by his blind spots — that steers An American Pickle through its narrative rough patches.

Originally planned as a theatrical release from Sony, the comedy was acquired in April by HBO Max and debuts Aug. 6 as the first original feature to premiere on the new streamer, where its quirky marketing campaign and Rogen's fan base should guarantee a solid audience. It marks a capable feature directing debut for cinematographer Brandon Trost, who shot a number of films with Rogen, including This is the End, The Night Before, The Interview, The Disaster Artist, Neighbors and its sequel.

The charmer of an opening — which mixes Rogen's heavily Russian-accented English-language voiceover with Yiddish dialogue — begins in the fictional Eastern European shtetl of Schlupsk in 1919. Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) is the town's ditch-digger, contending with broken shovels and rickety carts and a God that makes life difficult until he encounters the beautiful Sarah (Sarah Snook) at the market. "She is strong and healthy, has all her teeth, top and bottom," Herschel says admiringly. The courtship is swift but poignant, culminating with them sharing their hopes and dreams by a "beautiful bog." Sarah fantasizes about being rich enough to buy her own gravestone, while for Herschel, the ultimate luxury imaginable is to taste seltzer water.

Aside from one guffaw-inducing sight gag with a dried fish, the humor here is strictly low-key, like a black-comedy version of a Sholem Aleichem story. But it grounds the movie in a disarming celebration of Jewish identity. Herschel and Sarah have barely exchanged their traditional wedding vows when Russian Cossacks destroy the town in a pogrom. Their arrival at Ellis Island, met with a casually anti-Semitic welcome, adds thematic layers about the immigrant experience that further strengthen the comedy's robust foundations.

Upon learning that Sarah is expecting a child, Herschel vows that in 100 years, the Greenbaums will have power and success. But soon after, he tumbles into a barrel of pickle brine at the Brooklyn factory where he clubs rats for a living. He gets sealed up in the condemned building, only to be discovered a century later when two kids crash their drone through a window, knocking the lid off the vat. In an amusing dig at media gullibility, the reporters instantly swallow their skepticism when a scientist (Sean Whalen) whips out a graph to explain Herschel's remarkable state of preservation.

That freak occurrence makes him the exact same age as his only living relative, his great-grandson Ben (Rogen again), who plays down his still-raw feelings about the loss of both his parents in a car accident. Herschel's consternation about computer coder Ben's rejection of religion is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that his great-grandson has his own seltzer machine. But a visit to the Jewish cemetery where his beloved Sarah is buried turns ugly when Herschel is enraged by construction workers erecting a billboard for Russian vodka. A brawl ensues, with the resulting arrest killing any chance of Ben selling his five-year project, an app for the ethically conscientious consumer.

If that sounds like a lot of plot setup, well, it is. But the rift between Herschel and Ben drives the rest of the comedy, for better or worse, as the time traveler sets out on his own, determined to strike it rich as a pickle maker and belittle his doubting great-grandson.

The source material was Rich's novella Sell Out, first published in four parts in The New Yorker in 2013. Much of the plotting has been condensed and/or elaborated, to variable effect, and the antagonism between Herschel and his descendant considerably ratcheted up. This results in some conflicts that feel forced and not always true to the characters, particularly mild-mannered Ben.

What does carry over effectively from the story is the culture clash of a century-old immigrant dropped into present-day hipster Brooklyn, where his wild beard is on trend and his disheveled clothing gets him appreciative nods for his vintage style.

The process of Herschel making his own pickles — involving produce retrieved from a dumpster, salvaged jars, a converted supermarket cart and rainwater — is funny in a quaintly daffy way. And there are laughs in his first transaction with a gay couple (Eliot Glazer and Kalen Allen), who approve of his locally sourced ingredients, no-frills marketing and recycling policies. "Bring back jar or I will find you and I will do terrible violence," Herschel warns the tickled customers, inspiring a blog post that makes his artisanal pickles an overnight sensation.

Rich's script then gets into a bit of a rut as Ben turns vindictive and starts sabotaging Herschel's success; the scene structure becomes choppy. This continues even as the latter's discovery of unpaid interns enables him to expand the business and buy back control of Sarah's cemetery plot. Ben uses the bait of Twitter to goad his great-grandfather into sharing his retrograde religious views on women and homosexuality. But even that doesn't quite block Herschel's escalating fame.

There are shades of Being There in the elevation of inarticulate Herschel to national folk-hero status, with his passion and unfiltered truth drawing support from free-speech advocates, who even start ruminating on a possible political future. (A briefly glimpsed web headline proclaims: "Kanye West Defends Herschel Greenbaum's Right to Offend.") But Rich's writing gets clunky and mechanical as the infuriated Ben resorts to increasing ruthlessness. A slight mean-spiritedness creeps in, which seems out of character with the overall tone.

A deportation trial with heavy-handed comedy bits is too sloppy to work, even within this film's whimsical logic. But it does yield an old-country interlude and a lovely conclusion that reinforces the values of faith and family literally pickled into Herschel and passed down across a century. In that sense, An American Pickle, for all its silliness, is uncommonly spiritual for a mainstream comedy. That aspect is amplified by the strains of klezmer in Nami Melumad's score, with original themes by Michael Giacchino.

While it would have been rewarding to see more of the wonderful Snook (displaying a different brand of toughness from her character on Succession, with a much purer heart here) the movie does not suffer from the absence of more fully developed secondary characters. That's largely because Rogen is so adept at breathing depth into two distinct roles, dissimilar in their physicality and facial expressions as well as their use of language, and yet clearly cut from the same cloth in ways that time or cultural background can't negate. Despite the acrimoniousness of their split, you root for their inevitable reconciliation, which closes the movie on a warm note. The end credits feature a cheeky homage to Barbra Streisand, Rogen's co-star in The Guilt Trip.

The effects work allowing Rogen to play scenes opposite himself is first-rate. What's more surprising is the delicate beauty of the CG elements in the Schlupsk scenes and the fast-forward through 100 years in a storybook shot of the Brooklyn pickle factory with Manhattan in the background. A shift in aspect ratios is used to differentiate the old world from the new. An American Pickle is neither the most substantial nor the most sophisticated comedy, but its soulful sweetness outweighs its flaws.

Production companies: Point Gray Pictures, Warner Max, in association with Sony Pictures Entertainment
Distributor: HBO Max
Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Molly Evensen, Eliot Glazer, Kalen Allen, Sean Whalen, Jorma Taccone, Kevin O’Rourke, Marsha Stephanie Blake
Director: Brandon Trost
Screenwriter: Simon Rich, based on his short story, Sell Out
Producers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
Executive producers: Ted Gidlow, Alexandria McAtee, Simon Rich
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: William Arnold
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Music: Michael Giacchino, Nami Melumad
Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin
Visual effects supervisor: Adam Rowland
Casting: Francine Maisler, Lynn Kressel

Rated PG-13, 88 minutes