Seth Rogen and WarnerMedia exec Jason Kilar, who wants to put HBO Max over the top, are in the news for different reasons so, I figured, why not give their combined effort – An American Pickle – a chance? It’s not as bad as Rogen pontificating about Christianity or the layoffs occurring all over Warner’s vast empire, but that’s not saying a lot.
Based on a short story, An American Pickle follows Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a Jewish immigrant to New York circa 1919. Greenbaum, having lost everything to marauding Russian Cossacks, moves with his wife (Sarah Snook) to the US in order to achieve the American Dream.
He finds a job in a pickle factory killing rats, exclusively, to support his growing family. Then, one day, he slips off a catwalk and falls into a vat of the briny stuff. Sealed in airtight as the plant shuts down, he is preserved miraculously for a century.
Herschel is busted out by two kids (who look like castoffs from Stranger Things) with a drone. Alive and astonishingly healthy, he becomes a marvel of science for a minute. Then, nowhere to go, the lab examining him tracks down his last living relative – hipster entrepreneur Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen).
Ben opens his home to Herschel but the family reunion quickly sours. It’s not long before the stuck-in-his-ways man out of time is at odds with his great-grandson.
Plot, What Plot?
Bogged down by a muddled setup, the only tenable plot in this mashup of Borat and bits of Austin Powers is the gravestones Herschel buys for himself and his bride. It’s a big sticking point of the movie and the gags.
The rest of the running time is made up of a series of antics chasing an actual narrative and never catching it. One scenario after another is just stumbled into – from Ben and Herschel winding up in prison to Herschel becoming a viral sensation and then pilloried by cancel culture.
Nothing perceptible involving what I’d call “furthering a plot” happens until 30 minutes in. That’s when Ben and Herschel have a fight, forcing Ben to think Herschel is more trouble than he is worth. It meanders from there. The closest instance approaching a coherent plot is when Herschel strikes out on his own and starts a trash-diving pickle business.
This is a ploy to raise enough money so he can tear down a billboard for vodka put up over the cemetery housing his wife’s grave. Herschel’s hatred for anything Russian – especially Cossacks – can’t be understated which is funny only if you’re a history buff or a fan of Sergei Eisenstein.
A Tale of Two Seths
Rogen plays the two guys surprisingly well, making them seem as distinct as possible. They’re both dimwitted schlubs, sure, but in their own way.
He does better with Herschel, who is given unique traits from his accent to his beard, clothes, and hat. Herschel stands out against the gentrified NY backdrop the way he should. Ben – the straight man of the duo, roughly – is nondescript, more of Seth Rogen playing Seth Rogen. You know his routine by now.
That’s a shame because Ben has an arc, underdeveloped as it is, with a moving payoff. He is a wannabe tech businessman trying to make an app called BoopBop happen – essentially, it’s Yelp for woke “ethics.” Losing his parents tragically, he resists talking about them to Herschel who thinks Ben is just another young guy dishonoring his family.
But then Herschel learns the BoopBop name is a tribute by Ben to his folks while Ben is mistakenly deported to the family homeland of Schlupsk (in another abruptly transient subplot). Uncomfortable praying, he reconnects with his Jewish roots there and finds solace in faith and community again.
Allowing Ben and his great-grandad to patch things up and end the movie on a happy note, the emotional weight is unmoored from the rest of the picture, which is unfortunate.
An American Pickle isn’t pure brine but it soaks a little too long in contrivance. Its biggest fault is jumping from one goofy scenario to the next just so it can have as much social satire as possible without much oomph. The delivery is “meh,” amusing when it could be laugh-out-loud.
Its production values are great, I will say that. Scenes are shot and composed very well. Pickle is a good first effort for the Max and their Warner Max brand in that respect. I won’t score it lower than Bloodshot but I won’t call it worth your time either when HBO Max has so much more to offer – for instance, its DC and kaiju stuff.
- The ending was nice.
- Herschel is interesting enough.
- The film looks good.
- Ben, as a character, doesn't stand out despite his satisfying resolution.
- The film moves from one thing to the next at such a rapid pace, it comes unglued quickly.