Review: A sweet fable in Seth Rogen’s ‘An American Pickle’

  • A scene from “An American Pickle” by HBO Max shows Seth Rogen portraying both Ben Greenbaum, left, and his great-grandfather Herschel Greenbaum. Hopper Stone/HBO Max via AP

  • In “An American Pickle” by HBO Max, Seth Rogen plays both Herschel Greenbaum, left, a man magically transported to the 21st century from 1920, and his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum.  Hopper Stone/HBO Max via AP

  • Seth Rogen plays one of his two characters in this scene from the HBO Max film “An American Pickle.” Hopper Stone/HBO Max via AP

AP Film Writer
Thursday, August 06, 2020

The funniest part of “An American Pickle” isn’t even really in the movie. It’s a little scene in the middle of the credits in which Seth Rogen’s Herschel Greenbaum, a 1920s laborer who wakes up 100 years after falling into a vat of pickle juice, watches “Yentl” with his millennial great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen).

Their little interaction is sharp and light and lively and fully inspired; Rogen has fun imagining how a stoic Jewish man from a century ago would react to seeing Barbra Streisand. It’s a delight. Why it didn’t fit in the movie is anyone’s guess, but it could have used a few more like it.

“An American Pickle” is a little more serious and a little more heartfelt than you might expect from a Rogen joint. Based on a short story by humorist Simon Rich, who also wrote the script, it’s a classic fish out of water (or pickle juice) tale that the movies have always loved. In Hollywood, there’s always room for an old-time character encountering a modern automobile scene.

The film has a strong opening in the sepia-toned past in the fictional Eastern Europe shtetl of Schlupsk, where Herschel is a very unsuccessful ditch digger; his shovels keep breaking underneath him. Life is hard, but he finds love there in Sarah (Sarah Snook), who still has all of her teeth.

Still, bad luck keeps following: Russian Cossacks chase them out of town, so they flee to America looking for a better life. The only job Herschel can get is as a rat chaser at a pickle factory. He has his accident soon after discovering that he’s going to be a father.

Naturally, he misses everything that comes next until suddenly he’s getting a crash course about life in modern Brooklyn, with all its Kombucha and oat milk and seltzer, from his great-grandson, Ben. They attempt to navigate their differences until an altercation at a cemetery lands both in jail and jeopardizes the sale of Ben’s app, which he’s been toiling over for years. For Ben, this means war against his only living relative.

Herschel, meanwhile, becomes a bit of a local celebrity selling pickles that he’s made from gutter water and dumpster cucumbers that the hipsters adore for their gritty authenticity. The good-hearted skewering of millennial DIY culture feels a little dated (although so does everything from before quarantine). The film also takes on a decidedly “Being There” tone as Herschel becomes a sort of folk hero for his simple, antiquated views. And they turn on him just as easily for the more problematic ones, too.

But this is all a backdrop for the bigger themes about family and heritage. Ben has been cut off from his: His parents died in a car crash, and he seems wholly uninterested in where he came from. Herschel is perplexed that, among all the things in Ben’s apartment, there are no pictures of family, and that religion is not part of Ben’s life. It’s surprisingly sweet and moving.

“An American Pickle” is the directorial debut of Brandon Trost, a cinematographer by trade who is used to working with Rogen (“This Is the End,” “The Interview,” “Neighbors”). And this is a lot of Rogen. It’s fun to see him flex and stretch acting opposite himself. He doesn’t get enough credit for his more serious turns, so this is a nice showcase overall.

The film was supposed to be a theatrical release before HBO Max acquired it for streaming, which is probably the best of all worlds for this kind of picture: A solid film with a few good gags and a fair amount of heart.

“An American Pickle,” an HBO Max release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language and rude humor.” Running time: 90 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four. PG-13 definition: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.