Review: Seth Rogen comedy 'An American Pickle' tastes sour
Courtesy of HBO MAX
Taking a break from the crude sight gags and pot jokes, Seth Rogen’s new comedy “An American Pickle” is a film about heritage and family. Originally scheduled for a theatrical release from Sony, the studio sold it to HBO MAX where the film will become the first original feature to launch on the streaming service.
“An American Pickle” is certainly a passion project for Rogen though director Brandon Trost and screenwriter Simon Rich - based on his own short story - can’t build an interesting narrative around him. The premise – a time travel comedy in the vein of “Encino Man” – centers on immigrant Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) in the fictional 1919 Eastern European village of Schlupsk, sporting a thick Russian accent, and trying to woo the town maiden (“Succession’s” Sarah Snook). His day job – working at a pickle factory chasing rats – hits a snag when he falls into a huge brine vat just as the factory has been condemned.
Fast forward to Brooklyn 2019 and Herschel is accidentally revived, escaping from the vat like a walking miracle. The film understands how absurd this situation is and instead of explaining how it would be medically possible to preserve a human in pickle brine for 100 years, before you can blink Herschel is reunited with his only surviving relative, a great grandson named Ben (also Rogen). Ben, a local Brooklynite, is a freelance mobile app developer with no real career prospects and is tasked with showing his long-lost grandfather the ropes of 2019 which includes cancel culture, Twitter, and numerous, boring, nods to Alexa.
Eventually, Herschel becomes a beacon in the community and turns into a viral sensation overnight as he starts his own pickle business from scratch (most of the supplies were pulled from the trash, but that doesn’t matter to a group of twee millennials as long as the product is gluten free). Soon thereafter, Trost and Rich attempt to turn “An American Pickle” into a metaphor on our broken political system as Herschel is seen as the outsider with a clear vision of the country, but is then flipped upside down when his cringy 1919 ideologies come to head in a debate with a feminist group.
Things also hit a rut as Ben goes on a revenge crusade trying to sabotage Herschel’s newfound success and the scene structure becomes uneven and choppy. A deportation trial late in the game feels too derived to ever work and though it does foster an endearing message about faith and family, a theme that’s uncommon for the likes of Rogen, known for his raunchy R rated comedies, “An American Pickle” struggles to find balance. Is it a Comedy? Drama? Political Satire? The film dabbles with all three and the charm of Rogen isn’t enough to carry the load, and you wonder why the film didn’t invest time in secondary characters.
Some decent effects, allowing Rogen to play scenes opposite himself, can’t overcome the sour feeling of all the undeveloped characters and lazy running gags, (I would have loved to spend more time with Herschel’s wife Sarah) often outweighing the sweetness Rogen occasionally emulates. There’s only so much you can pull from quips about polio, women’s rights, and Russian Cossacks before the material starts to run thin.
An American Pickle launches August 6th on HBO MAX