Seth Rogen, by now, knows the ins and outs of a Seth Rogen movie. Take 1 cup of slacker, played by Rogen himself. Mix with 1 cup of pretty blonde à la Katherine Heigl in “Knocked Up,” Elizabeth Banks in “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” or Charlize Theron in “Long Shot.” Sprinkle in James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Paul Rudd, and/or Craig Robinson to taste. Fold until the slacker has learned to grow up and not smoke so much weed.
“An American Pickle” knows this formula and, refreshingly, breaks it. There is no Franco brother as far as the eye can see. A pretty blonde is introduced but promptly discarded. Seth Rogen’s comedic partner that he’s bantering with is . . . himself.
“An American Pickle” follows Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), who immigrates to Brooklyn from the fake, vaguely Eastern European country of Slupsk with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook) after their village is razed by Cossacks. Herschel finds a job in a pickle factory and accidentally falls into a brining vat. Soon after—literally seconds after this workplace accident—the pickle factory is abandoned for 100 years. Two neighborhood kids stumble upon Herschel, who was perfectly preserved in the pickle brine and seems to be healthy, if understandably shaken. A search for living relatives yields a great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (a more clean-shaven Seth Rogen), an app developer who conveniently lives in Brooklyn.
In fun, fish-out-of-water style, Ben shows Herschel how much Brooklyn has changed, and the men have a heartfelt discussion about family and legacy. (In a particularly endearing moment, Herschel, who in 1920 longed for the luxury of seltzer water, thinks his descendant Ben lives like a king for having a Soda Stream.) But before the movie descends into schmaltz, the discussion quickly turns sour, and Ben kicks Herschel out of his apartment to fend for himself. Herschel uses his knowledge of pickle brining to start a pickling business, and the relatives try to sabotage each other in hilarious slapstick fashion.
To get the elephant in the room out of the way, Ben’s Brooklyn is certainly different from Herschel’s, in that Ben’s Brooklyn was actually filmed in Pittsburgh. The movie deals with this in cheesy ways (aerial stock footage of actual Brooklyn and New York City) and smart ways (satire of Brooklyn hipster and artisanal culture).
The movie overall is not particularly interested in logic. When a scientist begins to explain how Herschel was preserved in brine for 100 years, Herschel’s thickly-accented voiceover speaks over the scientist and assures the audience that “his logic is good” and his explanation “satisfies everyone.” Later plot holes and leaps in the movie’s logic aren’t addressed, lest the audience is given another stern reminder to just go with it.
“An American Pickle” is written by Simon Rich, adapting his New Yorker short story “Sell Out,” but through Rogen’s performances and Brandon Trost’s direction, it becomes an aggressively Seth Rogen project. Herschel and Ben are well-defined and separate so one doesn’t get the sense that they are watching Armie Hammer’s Winklevoss twins from “The Social Network,” but Herschel and Ben are the only defined characters in the whole film. Other characters come in to play one-note stereotypes—the finance bro, the eager intern, the indulgent hipster food blogger—and leave without making much of an impression.
Rogen has stated that the “formulaic” nature of “An American Pickle” was what made it easy to play both Herschel and Ben: “I longed for it in some ways. Some of the movies we make are so loose that this idea of making something that was pretty regimented and had a pretty specific blueprint it had to follow was actually appealing to me.”
Thankfully, the movie doesn’t feel formulaic but rather high concept: “The Parent Trap” meeting a time-traveling comedy such as “Kate and Leopold.” “An American Pickle” also shows Rogen’s range, considering most of his career up until now has shown him riffing off at least one other actor. That being said, during a pandemic where there is a lot of anxiety about showing films in theaters versus streaming, “An American Pickle” feels kind of small, like it should have been a streaming film regardless of the state of movie theaters.
It is for this reason that some comedic choices in the movie should have been more brave and raunchier—not quite “Sausage Party”-level raunchiness, but if this is going to be a Seth Rogen vehicle, the PG-13 rating makes the film feel limp. Not one “depiction of drug use,” as the MPAA would put Rogen’s characters’ copious weed consumption. Rich’s source material “Sell Out” has more violence and colorful language (that is to say, cursing) and the movie could have included these humorous elements.
The movie flirts with a more restrained, mature Seth Rogen who cares about family, legacy, ambition, and his role within the Jewish diaspora, and then gives us goofy Seth Rogen anyway. Much like a real pickle, people will either love this movie or ask that it not come with their burgers because they can’t stand the sight of it. Nonetheless, the movie is a fun ride, and a good movie to watch with your family during pandemic quarantine.