“Seth Rogen pulls double duty, acting opposite himself.”
In An American Pickle comedic actor, writer, and producer Seth Rogen once again leaves behind his traditional role of a chuckling stoner. Written by Simon Rich and based on his short story Sell Out, Rogen pulls double duty, acting opposite himself as Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant from Schlupsk that fell into pickle brine at a Brooklyn factory. Waking up 100 years later Hershel has been perfectly preserved and meets his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Seth Rogen), his only remaining family member.
What results is probably Seth Rogen’s most culturally Jewish venture. The opening scenes, shot in a black and white 1:1 aspect ratio finds Herschel comically narrating his brief history of immigration to the United States after his town had been raided by Russian Cossacks. While life is not much better in 1919 Brooklyn, Herschel remains hopeful of achieving his American dream, taking up work at a pickle factory, a nice Jewish business. Throughout these scenes are background references to the unwantedness of Jewish immigrants but An American Pickle never goes deeper into this theme despite the recent extreme resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States.
When Herschel wakes up in contemporary times and gets to know his great-grandson Ben, the film continues its Jewish identity as a focus on culture. Herschel is continually shaped as a Jewish man from 1919, he never learns about the Holocaust, or the brewing hatred of Jewish people, despite an arc in the film about cancel culture. Ben and Herschel begin their comedic clash early on in An American Pickle, putting aside Herschel learning about Jewish identity in 2019 to instead focus on proving his great-grandson wrong. He changes nothing about himself and quickly adapts to modern New York, growing a pickling business that Ben tries to undermine.
Ben’s dislike for Herschel stems from his guilt surrounding his Jewish faith. Herschel uses his pickle business to make money to care for the gravestones of his family. Ben, having lost both his parents in a brutal car accident, has not visited the cemetery in years. Instead, he chooses to immerse himself into software development, working on his app Boop Bop but is too afraid to pitch his idea. Ben’s guilt comes from his absence from Judaism as a religion. He identifies as a Jewish man but does not practice the religion. He feels guilty visiting the grave of his family members because he does not know how to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. In An American Pickle, Jewish identity is explored as something personal rather than looking at how Jewish identity is seen in the United States.
Giving the fantastical circumstances, An American Pickle is clearly a comedy. But it is different and more dramatic than any comedy Seth Rogen has previously worked on. The film beautifully touches on personal Jewish identity but unfortunately lacks the depth to explore other themes of anti-Semitism and immigration, despite the plotlines being set up to do so. The screenplay is what sours An American Pickle, along with refusing to explore contemporary American issues, there are numerous scenes where the action is middling and the film brushes over the reconciliation of Herschel and Ben, ending on a note where it felt like the film easily could have kept going. Given the unique relationship between Herschel and Ben, it may have been interesting to see An American Pickle as a miniseries.
An American Pickle does have the elements to become something special, but unfortunately, the film does not come close to achieving this because of the emotional shallowness prevalent throughout its runtime. Its strong points come with Nami Melumad’s uplifting music and John Guleserian’s impeccable cinematography, reading more like an indie drama than the generic shots that come with a traditional raunchy comedy. But the true saviour of the film is Seth Rogen’s acting. Sure, Ben can be read as a slightly more mature version of Rogen’s past characters (many of them have also been named Ben) but Herschel is completely different. Rogen loses himself in the role, morphing into a bearded old Jewish man complete with an Eastern European accent. For Rogen’s acting alone, An American Pickle is worth the watch. Rogen seems to be taking a page out of Adam Sandler’s book, taking on dramatic roles sparingly, but like Sandler, the results are amazing when they finally come.
Dir: Brandon Trost
Prod: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Ted Gidlow, Alex McAtee
Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Molly Evensen, Eliot Glazer
Release Date: 6 August 2020
Available on: HBO Max