How Hollywood’s Biggest Slackers Fell Out of Time: ‘Palm Springs’ (2020) and ‘An American Pickle’ (2020)

In a Hollywood much less interested in the traditional blockbuster comedy, this past year saw the release of both An American Pickle and Palm Springs, two far smaller and more personal star vehicles for Seth Rogen and Andy Samberg respectively. In their own way, both of these films revolve around the idea of their star being pulled out of time and into an unfamiliar setting. However, on a bigger picture level, these films served as an attempt to reframe their star’s careers in a new light. Though both films do this in very different and almost oppositional ways, the result is a more complete picture of just how Hollywood might feel about the history these two leads’ careers embody.

Rogen came to fame in the early 2000s and soon became an instrumental part of the era’s stoner comedies and laidback romps about dudes being dudes no matter what anyone else in their lives had to say about it. There was a casual chauvinism that,while a far cry from the edgier comedies of the previous generation, dated them squarely in another time. Conversely, Samberg’s success, while in many ways inextricable from that previous generation, was defined by a very different type of comedy that teetered on the line between the ridiculous and the mundane. Films like Hot Rod and early Saturday Night Live digital shorts like Lazy Sunday introduced Samberg to the world as a more sensitive slacker than the comedies of his predecessors, a reputation he would ride all the way to a comfortable lead role in NBC’s wackiest copaganda – Brooklyn Nine Nine. Though via very different routes, Rogen and Samberg became the definitive Hollywood slackers for an entire generation. However, that was a bubble destined to burst as audiences became less and less interested in aloof men living without consequence and as the state of Hollywood began to change, so did its leading men.

An American Pickle is a dramedy about Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen), an Eastern European immigrant who is brined in pickle juice for a century before he wakes to a world he doesn’t recognise. His great grandson, Ben (also Rogen), is now his only connection to family and home. Through this setup, the film becomes a genuinely touching story about culture and the sacrifices of family. However, the dual casting of Rogen in a story he has been very open about his connection to raises the inescapable questions as to what this really has to say about his celebrity persona. One of the most important factors in An American Pickle is Herschel’s outdated and bigoted views, reflected in both homophobic tweets and less than progressive business tactics. This is one of the main reasons why he is initially unable to function in the world he has found himself in without alienating himself, but there is a very explicit meta level to this in the way it reflects Rogen’s own career. Around 2013, Rogen stopped playing the kind of slacker that had made his name and began taking on more sensitive roles that almost seemed like a foil to what had come before. This established the trend of characters that Ben Greenbaum, Brooklyn based app developer with progressive politics and strong opinions on labour violations, fits neatly into. In this way, the role of Herschel is a kind of homecoming for Rogen as he returns to the roles that made his name, with vulgar humour and a disregard for convention, but in a way that explicitly contrasted against the parts he plays now. The framing of Herschel as a man literally out of time becomes a space for Rogen to face the more problematic parts of his own career head on. While the choice to embody that character as a person with his sincere motivations becomes an appeal from the filmmakers to consider what of those films was at the very least well intentioned. It would be very easy for Rogen to outright reject the era his career was born into as irredeemable but An American Pickle seems to hope that beyond the general cruelty and edgy jokes, people must have been coming back to those movies, often flawed expressions of genuine friendships for something more.

This image is from 'Palm Springs' (2020). Nyles (Andy Samberg) lies back on a hay bale and sprays water into the air.
Image courtesy of Hulu

Palm Springs, released earlier this year on Hulu, takes a very different approach in pulling its star out of time. Nyles (Andy Samberg) is trapped in a time loop à la Groundhog Day, a concept the film appropriates to great success in service of a story unashamedly about depression and love and rekindling a passion for life. However, Samberg’s casting makes it hard to ignore just what this film might mean in continuity with his career, especially considering that his Lonely Island Classics label had a hand in its production. However, where An American Pickle is reflective and almost regretful, Palm Springs feels almost distractingly preoccupied with excusing the kind of role Samberg has tended to play over his career in films such as Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It extrapolates the tedium of the everyday these characters have raged against to a genuine fantastical obstacle; when Samberg wakes up every day in the same place and the same time, the suggestion is that this is an inevitability. This is not to suggest some great sin in Samberg’s past that must be atoned for, but simply a very particular reaction to that past. Samberg has always played loud, self obsessed and free spirited characters, often at the expense of the people around him. Palm Springs reacts to this by casting him in perhaps the most Samberg-esque role ever written, a lonely loser with little hope of ever being anything more and uses its narrative to attempt to reframe that character type and reveal a new level of previously unseen tension. 

Put simply, Palm Springs inserts the archetypal Samberg character into a story about depression, and seems to hope that will lead to a retroactive reconsideration of the characters that came before. His same failings and flaws are reframed here as equally funny and tragic in a way not seen in earlier films. Similarly to how An American Pickle hoped audiences would be able to look beyond the more dated parts of Rogen’s filmography, Palm Springs asks audiences to look deeper into Samberg’s and to consider why those characters might have shied away from responsibility and adulthood, almost explicitly introducing the factor of depression. This isn’t perfectly executed as it massively hinges on our engagement in this particular story but it is an admirable attempt.

The combined effect of these films, released just months apart, is a very palpable sense that their stars and the industry they represent are looking for permission to move on. Though the smash-hit comedy is far from dead, the golden age they experienced in the 2000s and 2010s is behind us and their stars seem to know that. These films represent a kind of awareness of what the comedy movie will really have to look like to survive, that they will inevitably become smaller and look more like indie dramas than blockbusters, and that in a Hollywood allegedly striving for diversity they will no longer be able to alienate swaths of people for the sake of a cruel joke. On the other hand, these films represent their stars’ own personal investment in the future of the genre and exist as points of conversation between their past and its future. An American Pickle is not simply Rogen apologising for edgy jokes, but a genuine personal reassessment of the parts of everything else worth holding onto within a story about doing just that. The goal of Palm Springs is not to justify the failings of characters for whom that was never originally a consideration but very simply to ask that they not be entirely forgotten as a more emotionally earnest type comes into favour.

For the generation that was raised on these films this is maybe a familiar dialogue, the back and forth over whether they hold some genuine enduring value or simply exist as reminders of another time. Looking back one is perhaps less likely to remember fondly their disregard for anything but the white cishet male experience or their celebration of giving up on adult life altogether than the genuinely felt, if crude stories about friendship and being an outsider. And I think it is only natural for the people to whom these films and their production represent years of their life to hope there is something worthwhile in their continued existence, even if that means having to reckon with the parts they might rather forget.

Header image courtesy of Netflix