Simon Rich's 2013 novella Sell Out was serialized in The New Yorker for a time, but its core tenets could have been ripped from the 1880s and Tolstoy's How Much Land Does a Man Need? short. In film form, the Seth Rogen-led American Pickle, now streaming on HBO Max, it becomes an adorable if uneven rumination on the importance of family, love conquering darkness and brine-based time travel. It's fun, it's silly, it's certainly not going to bother anyone.
In Pickle, Rogen pulls double duty, both as the hardworking Herschel Greenbaum—from the old country—and his own great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Herschel hails from the fictitious land of Schlupsk circa 1920-something, give or take, but makes it all the way to America with his wife where he takes on work as a rat exterminator in a Brooklyn pickle factory. The rats unite, however, pushing Herschel into a brining vat just as the factory is condemned, and there he lies for 100 years until drone bearing teens accidentally open the vat.
Somehow he was preserved, somehow he's OK, somehow his only living descendant, his great grandson Ben (also Rogen) is the same age, and the two attempt to forge bonds. But wouldn't you know it? Conflict! Herschel's not prepared for the societal changes of the modern era, and Ben, a freelance app developer, doesn't understand his great grandfather's work ethic and religious leanings. Hilarity ensues awhile in Odd Couple fashion until the differences become too much and Herschel sets out to prove Ben stupid. He literally says that.
Rogen's honestly kind of on fire here, both as the out-of-place Herschel and the emotionally stunted grandson. Disaster Artist cinematographer Brandon Trost sits in the director's chair on this one, and it's either a testament to his directing or Rogen's hard-won acting experience that Herschel and Ben feel like completely different performances. This makes for some tough moments and something akin to commentary, but it's also telling that Rogen can coax heartwarming out of himself.
This thing must have been a nightmare to film. Rich handled the screenwriting duties, so certainly the gestalt must hit close to his vision in some way. But even after the novelty of one actor playing multiple roles wears off, it's interesting to see the same guy who wrote the childish and exhausting Superbad teaching us a thing or two about what's really important in the world.
Yes, An American Pickle can be dark and strange and even feel stunted by some repetitive plot elements. But as far as modern day fairy tales go, it's a cute and engaging one—the kind of film that'll carve out a much-needed 90 minutes of respite, and one that doesn't shoehorn in a pointless romance. Family's the thing. It's kind of the only thing, really. Right? Just don't think about the science too much.
+Rogen is pretty good; some very funny moments; cute
-Not quite a dark comedy, not quite a light one; feels longer than it is
An American Pickle
Directed by Trost
With Rogen and Rogen
HBO Max, PG-13, 88 min.