‘An American Pickle:’ Rogen outperforms himself

HBO Max’s “An American Pickle” features Seth Rogen playing two different characters at two different times. Directed by Branden Trost, the film incorporates social and political commentary alongside humor and hilarity. // Photo courtesy of Point Grey Pictures

Our Take: 3.5 Stars

What happens when an early 20th century factory worker trips into a vat of pickle brine and is unknowingly sealed in? Obviously, he is perfectly preserved for 100 years before emerging and stunning medical professionals and pickle briners alike.

This is what happens to Jewish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen, “Sausage Party”) in “An American Pickle.” After he emerges in 2019 Brooklyn, Herschel finds his great-great grandson Ben Greenbaum, also played by Rogen. What follows is a genuinely funny and surprisingly heartwarming satirical romp.

HBO Max was one of the many streaming services that launched in 2020 and “An American Pickle” is its original film. The movie is based on a 2013 serialized novella published in The New Yorker by Simon Rich, who also penned the screenplay. There is a sincerity to the script that gives the movie its heart and shows that Rich conceptualized the story himself.

Frequent Rogen collaborator Brandon Trost (“The Interview”) directed the film, and it’s his first solo directorial credit. Traditionally Rogen’s cinematographer, Trost does an exceptional job with “An American Pickle;” his eye for framing scenes gives the mid-budget, sometimes-silly film a visually appealing edge.

Obviously, the movie’s gimmick is Rogen. Like any film where an actor stars opposite himself, the novelty becomes impossible to tune out. Still, Rogen does a spectacular job with both roles. The ambiguous eastern European accent Rogen dons as Herschel is the true star of the film; literally everything he says incites a laugh. Ben, a burnout yuppie, is more reminiscent of traditional Rogen roles. Most notably, Rogen takes a welcome departure from his traditional stoner humor.

What could have been a classic fish out of water tale about a man out of time bumbling around 21st century New York City, turns out to be a poignant generational drama.

Hard-working manual laborer Herschel must reckon with his descendant, freelance app developer Ben. Herschel, who in 1919 made a nickel for every rat he killed, is in awe of Ben’s mediocre modern lifestyle. While it is billed as a Rogen comedy, the film is honestly more of a drama with comedic beats.

It would be remiss not to mention the film’s inherent Jewishness. Herschel is an othodox Jew who immigrated from his home country after religious persecution from Russians. His faith is extremely important to him. Ben is secular; though he had a bar mitzvah and grew up religious, tragedy and zeitgeist has pushed him away from his faith. This is of course a huge point of contention for the two; Herschel lost everything because of his religion and Ben willfully rejects it.

For a story that was conceptualized in 2013, the movie is surprisingly of the moment. It pokes fun at a post-2016 America in a way that is hilarious, yet sobering. The movie explores cancel culture, gentrification, Twitter, the tech industry in general and America’s current political moment with bits that do not take away from the plot, but add brief respites of humor.

As the film comes to a close, after some expected identity-switching shenanigans, Herschel and Ben find themselves both in the “old country.” After a cutthroat conflict, going back to their roots allows the two to reconcile and realize that despite the differences in their lives and struggles, they are more similar than they would like to believe.

“An American Pickle” is a delightful watch. It may not be a long term rewatchable film, but clocking in at just under 90 minutes, the movie is easy to watch. It is sure to pull viewers’ eyes away from their phone screens for a little bit. This is the perfect film to throw on with roommates or friends and have a socially distanced night in.

“An American Pickle” is available now to stream on HBO Max.