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In the last twenty-plus years, few filmmakers have accomplished as much as Seth Rogen. Following his start as a teen actor on two excellent cancelled-too-soon shows, the multi-hyphenate’s career has been fascinating and exceptionally entertaining to watch, as he has gone from comedic supporting star to leading man/writer/director/producer, and consistently shown himself as open to evolution and challenge. This extends to both his apparent growing maturity as a storyteller, as well as his attempts to work outside of his comfort zones to try new things.
His latest, director Brandon Trost’s An American Pickle, is a wonderful example of both. The big hook is that the film presents new territory for Rogen as an actor, having him play two exceptionally different characters (an exercise at which he ends up excelling), but it also has an analytical and resonating perspective on the modern world and our value systems as they compare to a century ago (that is never undermined by the movie’s silliness). Certain structural issues in the story prevent it all from hanging together as well as you want it to, but the howling laughter the movie inspires is more than enough distraction.
The absurd satire comes from the sharp mind of Simon Rich (who wrote the screenplay and the four-part novella it’s based on), An American Pickle begins taking audiences back to the year 1919 and transports us to the fictional Eastern European country of Schlupsk. It’s in this dirt-poor nation literally shoveling mud that we meet Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a ditch digger with goals to start a family and maybe perhaps someday be able to afford a sip of seltzer water. He accomplishes half his life mission when he meets, courts, and marries the beautiful Sarah (Sarah Snook), but further aspirations are put on pause when the Cossacks invade and burn Schlupsk to the ground.
Hoping to start a new life and a foundation for generational success, Herschel and Sarah emigrate to the United States through Ellis Island, and to make ends meet and provide for his newborn son Herschel takes a job smashing rats in a pickle factory. Unfortunately, a chain of events finds the hard-working immigrant inconspicuously fall into one of the brining vats just as it is being sealed and the company is shutting down permanently. A full century passes before he is discovered – alive with his body mysteriously perfectly preserved.
Herschel is united with his only living relative, his great-great-grandson Ben (Seth Rogen), and he is over-the-moon excited to learn how the Greenbaum name has found success in modern America. Sadly, Ben does not prove to exactly be the descendant for whom he hoped. All on his own following the death of his parents in a car accident, Ben has dedicated the last five years of his life to the development of an application called Boop Bop and is stuck fidgeting with the logo instead of trying to sell it. This disappointment combined with the emotional shock of seeing his wife’s grave left in disrepair and below a Vodka advertisement (which he calls a “Cossack billboard”) leads Herschel to declare Ben as his enemy and set out on his own in the foreign new world so that he can raise enough money to buy the billboard and destroy it.
Seth Rogen delivers two equally excellent performances, and Herschel is one of his funniest characters ever.
An American Pickle is essentially an intergenerational comedy that through a fantastic twist has both of the main characters be the same age, and that opens the door for Seth Rogen’s performances to both anchor the film and make it shine – both of which they do. It’s a classic straight man/funny man double act where Rogen plays both parts, and while Herschel is the big standout of the duo as the latter, both roles ultimately demand a lot from Rogen, and he is exceptional.
It’s worth noting that I would watch a whole movie that is just about Herschel and Sarah’s life in Schlupsk, but that would obviously deprive the experience of the excellence that is the character in the modern world. Motivated by what are legitimately strong and positive values and a worthy cause, his drive is admirable as he makes what is a truly disgusting venture into the only industry he knows – pickles – but being out in modernity also exposes the horrors that he sees as ideals. Armed with a purposefully generic Eastern European accent, Rogen goes broad with his performance, and the payoff is excellent.
The added bonus of Herschel’s bombasity is that there is a clear line is drawn for the audience between it and Rogen’s turn the more reserved Ben, allowing you to see them as two totally different people), but Ben is an awesome character in his own right. It demands a more grounded performance from the star because he carries all of the weight that comes with living in the modern world as well as the recent death of his parents, but at the same time he gets his own big laughs acting as saboteur in his cat and mouse game with his ancestor, not to mention the film’s biggest emotional payoff.
An American Pickle has a complicated message, but it’s one well expressed.
As primarily driven home by the contrasts between the complex leads, who repeatedly trade off being protagonist and antagonist throughout the movie, An American Pickle is a satire about the tendency for society to romanticize the “good ol’ days,” while also showcasing elements of the world that have moved away from the past’s greater strengths.
Herschel has noble intentions, but he’s also a violent bigot. Ben is intelligent and positive, but he lacks drive and initiative. It’s a weird balance, but Simon Rich’s clever script finds it. It does take some liberties with the laws of reality (the most significant being the way it amusingly side-steps the question of how pickle brine can preserve a human body), but that by itself stops you from asking too many questions as the story goes where it needs to go to find the funniest scenarios.
An American Pickle’s pacing is off at times, but it moves past the turbulence quickly.
The movie carves out a windy path for Herschel and Ben, and while it never loses steam, there are some jerky moments as you feel An American Pickle transitioning into section of the story, having completed a particular arc. It makes a degree of sense when you consider that Simon Rich’s background is primarily in television and you look at the movie as being a string of episodes. It’s a bit distracting, but never serious enough to derail the narrative.
In a time when we can all use a good laugh, An American Pickle very much delivers and continues Seth Rogen’s trend as one of the most dependable stars in Hollywood. His voice is an excellent match for Simon Rich’s, and hopefully this will be one of many collaborations between them in the future.