Seth Rogen’s ‘An American Pickle’ is a sweet story with a sour center: Review

My hope for An American Pickle is that its bizarre blend of comedy and darkness becomes more palatable over time. I can’t say it entirely worked for me after a first viewing, though.

The pieces are there! Seth Rogen’s lovable stoner persona has always felt intensely relatable to my own life experience. Same for his distinctively “Jew-ish” mannerisms and quirks. What’s more, half of his role in the HBO Max original seemingly involves channeling Zero Mostel’s unforgettable Fiddler on the Roof performance. The other half is best characterized as “middle-aged NYC-dwelling tech worker.”

Any one of these elements appeals to my tastes; all of them together seem like a perfect recipe for summertime laughs. And yet.

The premise casts Rogen in a dual role: He’s both Ben Greenbaum, a struggling app developer in the modern world; and Ben’s own ancestor Herschel Greenbaum, an Eastern European pickle factory worker who spends 100 years soaking in brine after a freak accident, like some kind of Semitic spin on Captain America.

Herschel wakes up from his brine-induced sleep to a dramatically changed world, and one in which Ben is his only living relative. Our man out of time quickly learns that his big dreams for a successful Greenbaum family haven’t exactly materialized in Ben, a modern-day business hermit who’s so focused on his app that he’s got no friends, and really no meaningful relationships.

It’s an absurd premise, but the movie readily acknowledges that and even leans in. During an early press conference scene after Herschel de-brines, the dialogue fades to the background after a reporter questions how the hell this ridiculous “he survived 100 years in pickle brine!” scenario is possible. Instead of hearing the explanation, we watch dawning recognition set in across the press corps as a voiceover tells us, essentially, to just go with it.

And so we do.

It’s a leap made easier by the sweet and meaningful connection that develops between the two Rogens, with Herschel learning about modern society from Ben while he emphasizes his own strong connections to family and faith to a suddenly-real great-grandson. This genuinely heartfelt dynamic also helps us forget that Rogen is acting opposite himself in every scene.

It’s where Pickle goes to find its conflict that the story lost me. A series of strange and increasingly implausible turns suddenly leave Ben and Herschel at odds as bitter enemies. Herschel inadvertently ruins Ben’s app dreams, so Ben sends his same-aged great-granddad packing, to live on the street. Herschel vows to become a successful businessman as an act of revenge.

This twist results in an ever-escalating game of tit-for-tat between the two men, with a heavy lean toward cultural commentary and satire. Herschel’s street cart pickle business, for example, catches on with NYC’s social media-obsessed hipster set. We see Herschel picking through garbage for discarded cucumbers and filthy jars with which to brine them. The hipster community brands this objectively gross production process as “artisanal.” Of course.

The battle of the Greenbaums gives An American Pickle the creative space to level snarky commentary at Millennial hipsters, social media celebrity, cancel culture, and the United States’ unique flavor of culture wars. Herschel’s 100-year-old views aren’t exactly palatable by today’s standards, and so Ben finds various ways to weaponize his great-granddad against himself, such as when he employs reverse psychology to get Herschel and his problematic views on Twitter.

The commentary itself isn’t a problem. An American Pickle has some sharp points to make about modern life in the USA (even if they’re sometimes laughably on the nose). But the transition from a sweet and sincere, if totally absurd, opening to bitter, commentary-ridden rivalry creates a jarring narrative dissonance.

It is Rogen who makes the story work in the end.

In some ways, An American Pickle is exactly the kind of stoner comedy that Rogen has built a brand around. The absurdist sense of humor is tonally in the same place even in the absence of weed. But Rogen notably neither wrote nor directed this one, and it shows. Simon Rich, who based his script on his short story “Sell Out,” employs a dark and sometimes sadistic edge in the central conflict that doesn’t really jive with Rogen’s usual schtick.

It is who makes the story work in the end. I didn’t care for the dark overtones in the central conflict that pits Greenbaum against Greenbaum, but the dual starring performances carry the tougher stretches.

Herschel is an innocent stand-in for the far-right flank of America’s culture wars, a real “he knows not what he does (but does that ever make it OK?)” study in contrasts. And Ben is every tired, struggling freelancer I’ve ever met (including my younger self). He’s got a good heart and a strong belief in his ideas, but he’s also got just the right amount of disillusionment with the modern world to make you believe his shittiest attacks on his ancestor.

So yes, Rogen’s choices as an actor contribute to a more coherent story, even in the midst of some bizarre and occasionally upsetting twists. But those twists fill up a busy funhouse mirror of a second act that feels deeply at odds with the family-centric tone of the first and third acts. Maybe the playful treatment of the USA’s culture wars cuts just a little too close to home during what are hopefully the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

I’d like to think An American Pickle is the kind of comedy that needs time to soak in, like the vinegary snack named in the title. But in the summer of 2020, with a global pandemic having brought life to a standstill, this playfully edgy treatment of culture wars that have reshaped American society for the worse just doesn’t go down all that well.

An American Pickle is streaming now on HBO Max.

WATCH: Our favorite classic shows and films on HBO Max

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