An American Pickle Review

What might our ancestors think if they could see us now? That question serves as a springboard for An American Pickle, the new Seth Rogen comedy based on a charming Simon Rich short story. Scripted by Rich, the film follows a Jewish immigrant whose awoken after 100 years of being preserved in pickle brine and is now eager to meet his only living descendent, a Brooklyn app-developer. (Both are played by Rogen.) While the premise is promising, the execution aches from the growing pains of Rogen’s shifting persona.Since 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Rogen has played a string of manchild roles. Whether he’s a chuckling stoner, a perplexed police officer, a flustered baby-daddy, or a harried homeowner facing off against Greek Life co-eds, Rogen has made the struggles of Millennial “adulting” a constant source of comedy. However, as he edges closer to 40, this shtick risks going stale. So he’s begun to mix it up, playing a stubborn and schlubby but undeniably sharp speechwriter in the Charlize Theron rom-com Long Shot. With An American Pickle, he pulls double duty, playing a modern manchild terrified of taking his shot and the outspoken ancestor who knows too well that tomorrow is never promised.

An American Pickle’s story begins in the 1919 Eastern European town of Schlupsk, a place of muck, salted fish, and brutal Cossack rampages. There, Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) is a ditch digger who dreams of providing more for his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook), a vision of womanhood who has all her teeth (“top and bottom!”). So, they go to America in hopes of working hard to build a future for their family, one of power, success, and seltzer. (Yes, seltzer.) Then, a series of incredible coincidences drops Hershel in a brining tank, where he is forgotten for a century. When he arises, he’s saddened by the loss of the world he knew, but takes comfort in meeting his great grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), who has an enviably big Brooklyn apartment and a lot of unresolved grief over his parents’ deaths.

While Hershel is low-key confounded by these modern times (what with interracial dating, women’s rights, and the high cost of produce), he is most perplexed by his descendant’s priorities. Ben doesn’t observe Jewish religious traditions and hasn’t visited the family graves in years. He has no wife, no children, and no career that Herschel can comprehend. So tensions rise. In no time at all, the pair declare each other enemies. Herschel strikes out on his own with a pickle cart with wares pulled freegan-style from dumpster diving. Meanwhile, Ben stews over how to ruin his eccentric great-grandfather.

What’s fascinating about An American Pickle is how Rogen v. Rogen plays the actor’s current casting niche against his potential future. Ben is another manchild role, as he — according to Herschel — hasn’t achieved many of the requisites of manhood, including the ability to “throw your punch!” But frankly, Rogen seems to chafe in the part. Ben’s muttered complaints and perpetually furrowed brow express his juvenile frustration aptly, but he lacks the verve and comedic punch of Rogen’s previous manchildren. It’s as if Rogen’s bored by this archetype. Even with a tragic backstory, Ben feels hollow. Herschel, however, is where An American Pickle gets its bite.

With a long, bushy beard, an Eastern European accent, and a brusque bravado, Herschel is a fascinating new terrain for Rogen. It’s little wonder that Brooklyn hipsters, online influencers, and ambitious interns flock to Herschel and his peculiar pickles. With this role, Rogen is offered a chance to shake off the stoner/screw-up persona and dig into a totally different character. Herschel is gruff, passionate, and borderline bullying. Being 100 years behind the times, he spouts opinions that haven’t aged well, which sparks drama. Nonetheless, his chutzpah is exhilarating, so the audience is hooked on his every move, be it awkward or outrageous.

It’s easy to imagine this role going to someone like Kurt Russell or Bruce Willis. Hershel is at his core the kind of tough guy rogue who’d fit nicely in an ’80s action-comedy. Which is why the casting of Rogen is both curious and brilliant. He gives a fresh flavor to this macho man, punctuating moments of impulsive violence or social faux pas with an earnest jubilance or abrupt tenderness. In this role, Rogen sums up the tragedy and comedy of what it means to be alive and truly know the joys (a loving wife with dreams of her own gravestone) and the pain (losing many friends to Cossack murder) of it all.

An American Pickle works best when it rests on Herschel. The first act is hilarious and surprising, as it keeps us close to this curious character, even threading in narration that’s hilariously frank. However, once Herschel meets Ben, Rich’s script stumbles. It’s as if it knows the emotional beats the story needs to hit, but not how to get there. So Rogen faces off against Rogen in a series of clunky verbal battles about religion, grief, and Twitter. There are also sloppy swings at criticizing everything from think pieces and hipsters, to cancel culture, and Donald Trump’s Twitter outbursts. Some of these score laughs, but they also distract from the intriguing central story and its complicated hero.

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