Seth Rogen doubles down in surprisingly sentimental satirical comedy
An American Pickle
Starring Seth Rogen
Directed by Brandon Trost
Worlds collide in Seth Rogen’s new movie.
A fanciful tale of past meeting present, it’s a comical, century-spanning social satire in which he doubles down to play two roles—and strides confidently into new movie territory.
First, he’s Hershel Greenbaum, an immigrant worker from Eastern Europe whose American dream is cut short when he falls into a vat at a Brooklyn pickle factory. Nobody knows Hershel is inside when he’s accidentally sealed into the oversized wooden barrel just as the factory is condemned and closed, leaving poor Hershel there to marinate, with cucumbers and salt, for 100 years.
When he’s discovered in the present-day 21st century, well-brined but miraculously alive, preserved and otherwise hale and healthy, he’s is a medical miracle, a time-traveling curiosity suddenly adrift in a strange new world of the future.
That’s the setup for An American Pickle, a contemporary comedic upgrade on Washington Irving’s classic tale of Rip Van Winkle, the early American colonist who dozed off for 20 years, woke up and discovered he’d missed the whole American Revolution. You might think of Hershel as Rip Van Pickle—a whole century of life in America has gone by while he’s been hibernating in brine, and everyone he ever knew is long gone, including all his relatives…except one.
Hershel is overjoyed to learn he has a great-grandson, who happens to live nearby.
Rogen also plays Ben Greenbaum, a single, struggling freelance software developer—who’s about the same age as his great-grandfather, just wearing much trendier threads, and living in an apartment with everything remote-controlled by Alexa.
Ben, whose parents are deceased, never thought he’d reconnect with another offshoot of his Greenbaum family tree—especially one who was born more than 130 years ago.
Though he’s appeared in other films, like the biopic Steve Jobs, Rogen is best-known for playing stoner-schlub-slacker characters in such broad, raunchy comedies as Pineapple Express, This is the End, Neighbors, Long Shot and The Night Before.
An American Pickle is a kinder, gentler comedy than any of those, as Ben offers Hershel something to drink from his fridge—macadamia milk, cashew milk, maybe pea milk. “They’re milking everything these days!” he tells his bewildered great-grand-dad. Or when Ben introduces Hershel to “oldies” music, coaxing him to clomp, horah-style, to the 1960s Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs hit “Stay.”
Ben, we learn, has been working for five long years on an idea for a product launch, an app that lets consumers check out the ethics of products and companies before they make a purchase. Hershel, not surprisingly, doesn’t understand apps—or why it’s taking Ben so long to decide on a logo color, or to submit his idea.
Hershel has what he thinks is a much better idea, about a business that he and Ben can do together—and Ben and Hershel find themselves in a real pickle, a predicament of a disagreement that quickly deepens into rift and resentment. How will these two Greenbaums, from two different cultures, different countries and different centuries, ever get along?
Everything leads to a subversively witty lampoon of business and competition, a wickedly funny satire on the dangerous double edge of fame and a timely parody about how easily someone can rise to the top, then crash and burn in America, the venerated land of opportunity.
Rogen, who’s often been pigeonholed as an actor, does a refreshingly adept job in both roles—characters so vastly, obviously different, and yet also so alike, so irrevocably connected by their very roots. Director Branton Trost, Rogen’s comedic collaborator on several previous films, hones in on the funny, and also the tenderness, as Ben introduces Hershel to present-day New York City, his life and modern wonders—scooters, taxicabs, racial diversity, kosher hot dogs, and why on earth any human, with only two feet, would need more than 25 pairs of socks.
And the special effect, combining both characters into the same frame, is done so cleanly and seamlessly, you’ll forget you’re actually watching one actor in two roles at the same time. That, in itself, is a modern marvel.
An American Pickle is a comedy, sure, but its sentimental silliness is built on a heartwarming foundation that might surprise you—especially if you come to the film expecting the kind of guffaws you usually get from a Seth Rogen movie. This is a more mature, more grown-up comedy—one that happens to be delightfully clever, pointedly sharp and charmingly funny—with an unmistakable underpinning of (get ready now) family and faith, one that it tweaks gently with a few jokes but ultimately takes very seriously, and with much sensitivity. Hershel’s old-world Orthodox Judaism is a major part of the story, as is Ben’s lack of religious affiliation and his apparent abandonment as an adult of his Jewish heritage. (“I had a Jumanji-themed bar mitzvah,” he mumbles sheepishly to Hershel.)
And Ben’s late parents factor significantly into the story in a way you won’t learn about until near the very end.
Clearly, this pickle fable has more than just pickles—or goofball laughs—on its plate.
“It’s never too late to do things differently,” a young business prospect tells Ben. Rogen does things a bit differently with An American Pickle, double-decking genuine laughs with well-earned warmth for a wholly satisfying modern folktale about family, faith, pickles—and the power of letting things that can keep us apart instead bring us together.
Available Aug. 6, 2020, on HBO Max