An American Pickle made me cringe in advance. The premise of this comedy, the first original film from HBO Max, sounded vastly unpromising. Seth Rogen, playing a bearded, old-world Jewish man, falls into a pickle vat and is preserved there for a century, then awakens to our modern world, where he meets his only living descendent, a clean-shaven schlub also played by Rogen. What a stereotype-filled crapfest, I thought. Even the title seemed crudely obvious.
To my surprise, however, the film starts on an inspired note. In a prologue set in his homeland, Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) labors as a ditch digger and courts the beguiling Sarah (Sarah Snook).
Director Brandon Trost, a regular Rogen collaborator and a longtime cinematographer, goes all out visually here; the prologue closely resembles actual vintage film footage. Given the aura of authenticity, it’s a surprise and a kick whenever there’s a sight gag or goofy line, such as when Sarah chomps into an uncooked fish or confesses her dream of being able to afford her own gravestone.
At the prologue’s end, dreaming of success and generational wealth, Herschel whisks Sarah off to NYC, where he finds work in a factory and soon meets his pickled fate. Unfortunately, after this impressive opening, the movie quickly turns out to be almost as negligible as I’d expected, though the real problem is not crudeness but mildness.
The story focuses, relentlessly, on the two Rogens. When Herschel awakens from his pickle coma, he quickly connects with Ben Greenbaum (Rogen), his genial descendent. Herschel and Ben, a would-be app designer, friendly but friendless, are instant chums. But things soon go awry. When Herschel goes old-world berserk in public, both are criminally charged and the two part ways. Herschel sets up a pickle cart business, which gets traction with Brooklyn hipsters.
Reeling from the failure of his app due to his criminal record, Ben repeatedly sabotages Herschel’s business, but somehow it keeps bouncing back. Brooklynites, man! Those peeps really like their pickles. Ultimately, the two Greenbaums will face off in a final reckoning.
If it sounds like a non-stop Seth Rogen show, all I can say is: you have no idea. Aside from the always-welcome Sarah Snook, who drops out of the movie after ten minutes, there isn’t a single full-blown supporting character to add variety and give Rogen someone else to interact with.
Make no mistake: Rogen, a talented actor, gives his all to these characters. But they’re not great characters. Herschel is a hot-headed, old-world Jewish man; that’s about all there is to him. Ben is another likeable Rogen man child, though not one of his most distinctive. The script, credited to Simon Rich and based on his short story, provides scraps of vivid character interplay — but only scraps. Both Herschel and Ben seem a script draft or two away from being fully defined. Not to mention the technical challenges posed by Rogen’s dual role appear to have sucked up most of the creative energy.
The film’s style is flat. After the prologue, the photography goes limp, save for a few unexpected camera angles. The whole middle section, meanwhile, is choppy and episodic. At times, An American Pickle is so slight that it’s barely there. It’s often weirdly insular, and not in a deliberate, interiors-only, filmed-play kind of way. There are, in fact, many exterior scenes, but most of them have an overly staged, artificial feel. The lack of supporting characters, a real misstep, adds to the airlessness. Worse, the story has all the dramatic intensity of a yard sale.
It’s rarely clear what’s at stake. Ben, whose parents are dead, seems to have a pretty sweet trust fund, so the failure of his app has no real sting. Herschel ultimately faces a major comeuppance, but it’s a bomb dropped from nowhere; if we’d been told that bombers were circling, it would have added some welcome tension. Even a bottom-shelf Adam Sandler yukfest has more urgency. But is the movie, you know, funny?
Well, it has its moments. I never laughed, but I sometimes grinned. Herschel’s old-world, “I will do violence to you” dialogue occasionally pops, and there’s a courtroom scene with an amusingly random Charles Manson reference. But the prologue is the only sustained funny stretch. Strangely, the film only passingly addresses Herschel’s outdated worldview and his acclimation to modern life. That’s one thing I expected, and dreaded, from the movie: a relentless barrage of crude, ethnically insensitive fish-out-of-water gags.
In reality, though, the pic goes thankfully easy on stereotypes, while regretfully leaving out profanity. This is PG-13 all the way. The dual role gambit, which aids only a few jokes, is inessential; these aren’t twins or clones, after all. Which begs the question: Why the heck did they even bother with the double-Rogen gimmick? The story’s true subject is the clash of generations, not of cultures. Its true heart is more sentimental than raucous. This all could have been more directly achieved in a story about a young man played by Rogen and a resurfaced great uncle played by, I dunno, maybe Joe Mantegna.
Or, alternately, Rogen as the great uncle and one of his Apatow buddies as the young man. I’d even sacrifice the prologue if it meant we could lose the frozen ancestor, dual role apparatus and deepen the main characters and add a couple of solid supporting ones.
An American Pickle, for all its flaws and perplexities, will probably get some traction. If you’re scrolling around for a decent late night view, you could do worse. It’s short, it’s watchable and it has a few memorable bits. But I doubt that anyone will truly love it.
Pickle? More like vanilla. Here’s hoping that Rogen, and also HBO Max, gives us something more pungent next time out.