Possible spoilers ahead!
In the new HBO max film “An American Pickle,” Seth Rogen stars as Herschel Greenbaum, a Schlupsk native who immigrates to New York with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) in 1919. Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory where his main job is killing rats. Just after learning Sarah is pregnant with their first child, Herschel accidentally falls into a vat of pickles on the day the building is condemned.
The pickle brine Herschel fell into preserves him perfectly, until 100 years later when some kids with a drone stumble upon him. Herschel finds himself alone in a very different New York than the one he remembers. However, the doctors looking after him can track down Herschel’s only remaining relative, his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen) and the two begin the bumpy road to becoming a true family.
Since “An American Pickle” stars Seth Rogen (in dual roles no less), many people (me included) probably knew what kind of movie they were getting. But surprisingly, American Pickle tries to go for a more heartfelt approach. I’m not sure the movie achieves what it set out to do, but it is certainly different from everything else Seth Rogen has done before. At the very least, Rogen tried more dramatic acting than before, and he wasn’t awful at it.
“An American Pickle” ends up being a buddy movie, pitting two mismatched characters against one and other and letting the comedy flow from there. Add in the whole Herschel is a fish out of water dilemma, and you got even more comedy mining material. But that will only get a movie so far, so the main characters need to be interesting and people you could root for.
Unfortunately, Herschel and Ben are terrible people. They do some horrible stuff to each other from Herschel costing Ben a big business deal, to Ben sabotaging Herschel’s pickle empire every chance he gets. I know the two guys have just met, but instead of trying to get to know each other, they both seemed hell-bent on destroying the other person. And all this comes after the movie repeatedly tells us Ben is Herschel’s last living relative and how important family has always been to him.
That’s not to say there aren’t some funny moments in “An American Pickle.” I thought the best part of the movie was the opening scenes when Herschel and Sarah meet and get married. This sequence gives you a sense of where Herschel’s attitude is coming from, and how all that mattered to him was his wife and family. It’s a shame though that Sarah Snook is only in the movie for about 10 minutes because I like her character and the scenes with Herschel were sweet and funny.
Another funny part of the movie is when Herschel and Ben get arrested after Herschel beats up a crew putting up a billboard. Because the Russian vodka billboard overlooks Sarah’s grave, Herschel thinks it was put up by the Russians who were always invading his village. Other moments with laugh included Herschel appearing at a debate, and an emergency trip he and Ben take to the Canadian border, a trip that ends shockingly.
But, there are moments in “An American Pickle” that are simply bad. For instance, the way Herschel starts his pickle business is cringed worthy. I understand these scenes are in the movie to show us how different things were during Herschel’s time, but some stuff was a bit much even for me. What was weird too was that often I had the feeling Herschel knew what he was doing was wrong, but he still dove in head first, like when Ben convinces him into joining Twitter.
Some of that cringe-worthy stuff is typical in a Seth Rogen film, but I will give him credit for toning his act down for “An American Pickle.” Rogen does a good job of making Herschel and Ben stand out as two separate characters. Because both have distinct personalities and mannerisms, I never once questioned whether the same actor was playing both parts. Even when Herschel is saying offensive comments, Rogen’s portrayal reminds you that this is a man out of time who doesn’t know any better.
Ben meanwhile, comes off as a riff on a standard 2020 hipster, but it’s effective for what the script calls for and he too has a charm about him even when he’s doing terrible things. As for the film’s supporting cast, well, there isn’t one. There are a couple of people like a bar owner and two of Herschel’s customers that pop up more than once. But they don’t have names, story arcs, and they don’t get involved with anything else going on in the film. The closest supporting character we get is Sarah Sook, but as I mentioned before she disappears after the film’s opening.
In the end, “An American Pickle” is an okay film that could have been great. While there are some entertaining moments here and there, I can’t help feeling that the movie wasted a good premise for a comedy film. Seth Rogen did what he could with the script he was given, but even one of his best performances couldn’t help the thin screenplay. That said, “An American Pickle” is probably a good fit for a rainy weekend afternoon if you got nothing else to do.
“An American Pickle” grade: C