An American Pickle stars Seth Rogen as a pair of men separated by generations and brought together by a time travel gimmick so absurd that it puts the Hot Tub Time Machine and Bill & Ted franchises to shame. Based on a short story originally published in The New Yorker, the film is essentially a long shaggy dog story that begins with “A man falls into a pickle barrel” and meanders its way through gentle jibes about modern living, ruminations on religion, and heartfelt speeches about family. While the story is a bit slight and never quite fully lives up to the potential of its ridiculous premise, the film is a mostly enjoyable sendup of the digital era, as seen through the eyes of someone who never could have imagined it.
An American Pickle begins in 1919 with Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen with a beard), an Eastern European ditch digger. He and his wife are simple people with simple dreams, like being rich enough to afford their own tombstones or tasting seltzer water. When their village is burned in a Cossack raid, they emigrate to America, where Herschel gets a job killing rats in a Brooklyn pickle factory. Herschel is presumed dead after he Jokers his way off a catwalk and straight into a vat of pickle brine, which magically preserves his body until it is discovered a hundred years later. After the scientific community gives a very reasonable explanation that completely convinces everyone to stop asking questions and go along with the premise, Herschel is introduced to his great grandson, Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen without a beard). The future is full of wonder and Herschel’s first taste of seltzer does not disappoint. Unfortunately, his great-grandson does. Herschel dreamed of having a strong, powerful family, and instead got stuck with a middle-aged freelance app developer whose only creation – an app called Boop Bop, which helps identify ethical companies and products – has yet to advance beyond the logo design phase. After the Greenbaums have a falling out, Herschel vows to build a vast pickle empire, mostly out of spite for his only living relative. Armed with nothing but a few dumpster cucumbers, some questionably sanitary mason jars, and an abundance of free rainwater, Herschel starts hawking his wares on a street corner in Williamsburg, where the local hipster population turns him into a viral celebrity.
As Ben and Herschel battle for the title of Most Successful Living Greenbaum, the film pokes fun at a dizzying array of modern trends, from locally sourced produce and intern-based labor practices to Twitter rage and Trumpian politics. At the same time, it also showcases the touching bond that develops between the two men as they learn to love and accept each other. Unfortunately, the film never quite manages to find a satisfying balance between the two tones. The comedy is so unapologetically unrealistic and wacky that the more emotional scenes feel trite and unearned in comparison. Coupled with a PG-13 rating that keeps the social commentary toothless and Seth Rogen constrained relative to his more sex-and-weed-joke focused roles, the end result is a movie that’s enjoyable enough, but never fully satisfying. Like many Saturday Night Live spinoff movies before it, the film comes off as a moderately entertaining sketch that was padded out to feature length without any real need. The best moments in Simon Rich’s script are laugh-out-loud hysterical, but they are few and far enough between to support the full runtime. With its origins in a short story, this may be the first movie that could have benefitted from including less of the book.
Despite its flaws, Seth Rogen’s dual performance does a decent job of keeping things reasonably engaging. Though his performance is never groundbreaking – Ben is essentially Seth Rogen, and Herschel is essentially Seth Rogen with a fake beard and faker accent – his comedic timing is always impeccable, and he brings enough depth to each man’s sadness to keep the movie somewhat grounded.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
For those who have HBO Max, An American Pickle is the perfect movie for streaming during a global pandemic. Like an actual pickle, it is a simple, easily digestible, and more or less enjoyable palate cleanser that you can enjoy when you’ve finished bingeing all of television from the last twenty years. However, there isn’t much that will stick with you when its gone. It’s worth a watch when you’re in the mood for an evening of light entertainment and there’s nothing good on Netflix.