Review: ‘An American Pickle,’ starring Seth Rogen

August 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/HBO Max)

“An American Pickle” 

Directed by Brandon Trost

Culture Representation: Taking place in Brooklyn, New York, and in an unnamed Eastern European country, the comedy film “An American Pickle” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash:  In 1919, an immigrant worker at a pickle factory in Brooklyn has a freak accident that preserves him alive in a pickle vat for 100 years, and when he’s discovered in 2019, he experiences major culture shock that includes living with his great-grandson who looks just like him.

Culture Audience: “An American Pickle” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Seth Rogen or to people who like comedies about families, time travel or the immigrant experience.

Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle” (Photo by Hopper Stone/HBO Max)

In the comedy film “An American Pickle,” star Seth Rogen takes a break from the usual foul-mouthed raunchiness that he has in his live-action films and makes a sweetly sentimental statement about family love that is not bound by time. Rogen convincingly handles two roles in “An American Pickle”—Herschel Greenbaum and Herschel’s great-grandson Ben Greenbaum, who are two very different people from very different eras. Under the comic-book-styled direction of Brandon Trost, “An American Pickle” (written by Simon Rich) provides satisfactory entertainment for people looking for some lightweight escapist comedy, but it’s not the type of movie that is going to be considered one of the funniest films of the year.

In the beginning of the movie, Herschel is a ditch digger in an unnamed Eastern European country in the early 1900s. Herschel and his good-natured wife Sarah (played by Sarah Snook) are poor but happily married. During their courtship, they confided in each other about their respective hopes and dreams. For Sarah, her dream is to be able to afford her own gravestone. For Herschel, he dreams of one day being able to drink seltzer water.

One day, Herschel and Sarah’s village comes under attach by Russian Cossacks, who invaded and caused destruction in the area, and causing many of the villagers to flee. Herschel and Sarah decide to move to the United States. Their arrival at the U.S. immigration checkpoint is a quick biting commentary on the prejudices that await non-English-speaking, non-Christian immigrants. The movie shows Jewish and Polish people shoved around and treated like cattle at the checkpoint, after getting a “Welcome to America” greeting.

Soon after arriving in America in 1919, Herschel and Sarah set roots in Brooklyn, New York, where Herschel gets a job at a pickle factory. Sarah then finds out that she’s pregnant. Herschel thinks his job at the pickle factory will be a step up from ditch digging, but he’s assigned a job on the factory’s lowest end of the totem pole: He has to kill the rats that frequently run around the factory area.

One day, while chasing some rats at the factory, Herschel has a freak accident and falls into a large vat of pickles. His fall makes a large splash and causes a ruckus, but somehow, no one in this crowded factory notices. Almost immediately, like people moving props in a stage play, some factory workers put a locked lid on the vat, and Herschel is trapped inside. (It goes without saying that his movie requires huge suspensions of disbelief, where viewers have to ignore the idea that Herschel would shout for help or try to escape from the vat.)

At any rate, Herschel ends up being preserved alive in the vat for 100 years. In 2019, two teenage boys find the vat in the long-abandoned factory. Herschel is discovered alive, intact, and perfectly preserved. And he’s about to undergo major culture shock.

Herschel is taken to a hospital for medical tests. While undergoing testing, he finds out that his wife Sarah died in 1939. Herschel is upset about it, but knows there’s nothing he can do to bring her back.

During a press conference announcing Herschel as a medical miracle, skeptical reporters ask how Herschel’s existence could be possible, and they wonder if it’s a hoax. But then, medical experts at the press conference state that it’s medically possible, and the reporters quickly believe them. It’s an obvious send-up of how the media can easily swallow information from “experts” without doing their own investigations.

Herschel briefly stays in a hospital for tests, but he’s eventually let go after it’s discovered that he has a living relative named Ben Greenbaum. Ben happens to live in Brooklyn too (in a rented apartment), and he’s the same age that Herschel was in Herschel fell into the pickle vat. And so, Herschel goes to live with Ben, who is happy and surprised that he has a living relative.

Ben is unmarried and has no children or siblings. Ben’s parents David Greenbaum (played by Geoffrey Cantor) and Susan Greenbaum (played by Carole Leifer) died in car accident in 2014. And as a freelance mobile app developer, Ben works most of the time from home.

For five years, Ben been working on an app called Boop Bop, which reviews and rates companies based in the companies’ ethics. Ben is hoping to get major investments in the app to be able to sell it to a mass market of consumers, and eventually get rich by selling the app. Of course, all of this new technology is over Herschel’s head.

“An American Pickle” has the expected “fish out water” scenes of Herschel being amazed or having a hard time adjusting to life in 2019. Herschel is ecstatic when he sees that Ben has a seltzer machine that can make seltzer water any time he wants. But Herschel is completely confused by technology that has to do with computers, the Internet or mobile phones.

When Herschel and Ben take a walk outside and see a black man and a white woman holding hands, Herschel looks shocked. However, Ben tells him, “Interracial couples are cool now,” then he pauses and says, “in parts of the country,” in an obvious reference to the ongoing racism problems in America. And when Ben uses a scooter, Herschel scolds him: “You have legs. You don’t need these things.”

One of the best parts of “An American Pickle” is how it pokes fun at the neoliberal “hipster” culture of Brooklyn. While Herschel and Ben are walking down the street, a bearded hipster, who has on clothes that are similar Herschel’s, stops and compliments Herschel on his garb and asks if it’s vintage. A running joke in the movie is how Herschel sometimes misgenders a person, based on the length of their hair and if they’re wearing unisex clothes. (Females with short hair are mistaken as males, while males with long hair are mistaken as females.)

Back at Ben’s apartment, Herschel notices that Ben doesn’t have any pictures of family members on display. And so, Ben gets out his family photo album to tell Herschel about Herschel’s descendants whom Herschel never knew. It’s very important to Herschel that his descendants made something of their lives that would make him proud.

Herschel’s son Mort was a foreman of a brick factory. Mort’s son David (Ben’s father) was an accountant. All of this information makes Herschel very happy, but he notices that Ben finds it difficult to talk about his parents’ death. Ben and Herschel also have very different views on religion: Herschel is devoted to the Jewish faith, while Ben is an atheist. Herschel has a hard time understanding how Ben’s atheism.

A turning point in the story comes when Ben and Herschel visit Sarah’s grave, which is in a small, unkempt lot near a freeway. Herschel is offended that the gravesite is in such a run-down area. Herschel gets even more offended when he sees that a billboard overlooks the gravesite.

And it just so happens that some workers are replacing the old billboard with a new one, for an ad display of Russian vodka. See this ad triggers Herschel into thinking that Russian Cossacks are behind the ad, so he starts a fight with the billboard workers to try to stop them from putting up the billboard. The fight turns into an all-out brawl that lands Herschel and Ben in jail.

After they get out of jail, Herschel tells Ben that he’ll do whatever it takes to get rid of that Russian vodka billboard. Ben explains that it will take about $200,000 to buy a new billboard. And so, Herschel decides to start selling pickles at a street stand to raise money for the billboard.

Herschel’s pickles become an instant hit in Brooklyn, because the hipsters love that the “artisanal” and “organic” nature of the pickles and that it’s “locally grown.” When a gay couple named Christian (played by Eliot Glazer) and Kerin (played by Kalen Allen) pass by Herschel’s pickle stand, they are charmed by Herschel’s eccentric and “no filter” personality. Christian begins posting videos about Herschel on his social media, which become viral videos.

The local TV news takes notice, and Herschel and his pickles become even more popular. But not everything is going smoothly. Through a series of events, Herschel and Ben have a falling out, and they go to war with each other. Their family feud teaches them some lessons along the way about what’s important to them in life.

Despite some major plot holes and simplistic ways of getting around those plot holes, “An American Pickle” is enjoyable to watch overall because of Rogen’s talented ability to play two characters in ways that work well for this screenplay, which Rich adapted from his short story “Sell Out.” The movie’s supporting actors—including The Lonely Island comedy troupe member Jorma Taccone, in a cameo as a potential investor named Liam—are good-enough, but “An American Pickle” is really Rogen’s movie to carry as an actor, since he’s in every scene.

Even though Ben and Herschel are mentally the same age, Rogen does a very good job of portraying how each of these two characters’ life circumstances have affected their emotional development. Herschel became an adult during a time when people were expected to have religious beliefs and get married and have children by a certain age. Ben became an adult during a more open-minded time and place, where society allows more options for people.

Marriage, children and religion in modern-day Brooklyn are not “required” in order for society to think you have a fulfilling adult life. And because people’s life expectancy is longer than it was in 1919, there are more people like Ben who have an “arrested development” lifestyle, where it might take longer for adults to figure out what to do with their lives or achieve their life goals. It’s one of the reasons why Herschel is shocked that Ben has been developing his app for five years but still hasn’t sold the app.

There isn’t anything outstanding about Trost’s direction for “An American Pickle,” although the visual effects for the film at least look believable. “An American Pickle” isn’t a big slapstick movie, because the movie’s humor is a lot more low-key and satirical. There are many sly commentaries that make people think about the pros and cons of living in 2019, compared to the society that Herschel lived in 100 years prior. These comparisons bring up notions about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. The “culture shock” and “time travel” aspects of the story are really just ways to point out that family love can transcend space and time.

HBO Max premiered “An American Pickle” on August 6, 2020.