An American Pickle, the first original film released by HBO Max, stars Seth Rogen in a dual role and, while specifically probing Judaism and Jewish identity, also asks a more universal question: Would your ancestors like you if they met you? Would you like them?
A Pickle of a Premise
We’re first introduced to Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), an Ashkenazi Jew in the early 20th Century, who falls into a vat of pickle brine and is preserved in perfect health for the next 100 years until he’s discovered and revived in 2020. He’s distressed to learn that his wife (played by Succession’s Sarah Snook) is long dead but is overjoyed to learn that he has a great-grandson, Ben (also played by Rogen), who is alive and well.
The two are united, but in spite of their familial ties, their generational divide sets them at odds almost instantly. Ben’s a software developer who’s fallen out of touch with his Jewish heritage; Herschel is a tough, briny bastard who wants to solve problems through fisticuffs and sheer force of will. Ben’s greatest accomplishment is an app that tells you how ethical the food you’re eating is, something Herschel doesn’t understand the appeal of.
Their relationship reaches its breaking point when they visit Herschel’s wife’s grave and find it overgrown, with a large billboard advertising vanilla-flavored vodka looming overhead. Herschel, who was forced from his home by Cossacks and associates them with vodka, takes offense to the advertisement and starts a fight with the men putting up the sign. He and Ben are arrested.
Upon their release they learn that it will take $200,000 to remove the sign, and Herschel is enraged when he learns Ben doesn’t have the money to pay for that. He decides to go into business on his own selling pickles to raise the $200,000. Hijinks ensue.
The Premise Gets a Raw Dill
Unfortunately, An American Pickle is never quite sure where it wants to take itself. It’s a strange movie by design, but the strangeness never comes together in a way that would make the movie great instead of good.
The film has plenty of opportunities to decide what it wants to be: a snappy satire about the working class? a bizarre and briny story about a man who survives 100 years in a vat of pickles? a sweet family dramedy about blood being thicker than pickle juice?
An American Pickle ends up leaning more toward the latter of these, but it never really picks a lane—you almost need to map your own meaning onto it. But as it stands, even if it isn’t willing to double down on its weirdness or commit to a thesis, the movie is carried by Seth Rogen’s dual performance. Even when the humor falls flat and the pacing drops off Rogen remains committed to his performance and eminently watchable as both Herschel and Ben.
A Rich Origin
An American Pickle is based on the Simon Rich (Man Seeking Woman, Miracle Workers) short story “Sell Out”, which Rich himself adapted into the screenplay. Rich is a smart, funny, off-beat writer who can take a premise like this one and turn it into something wildly entertaining—but, unfortunately, An American Pickle never reaches that level.
In spite of all that, Rich’s influence is one of the things that works about this movie, and I hope we’re able to see him bring more of his projects to the big (small) screen in the future, ideally ones that have more of an identity. Readers should certainly tune in to his other existing projects in the meantime, both written and televised.
The most compelling aspect of An American Pickle is watching Ben engage with his heritage while Herschel learns to respect Ben’s way of life. There’s value in engaging with the past in a tangible way, which Ben learns over the course of the film. One thing An American Pickle gets right is its argument that, even if times have changed, the old ways still have something to offer—they can provide a sense of comfort, of community, or of purpose.
The movie also acknowledges, however, that some things have changed for the better. Herschel’s intolerance, more common in the early 1900s, causes profound issues for him later in the movie. His old-fashioned approach to food prep (i.e., doing whatever he wants, including sourcing water from gutters) also lands him in trouble (but, straight up, I’d still try one of his pickles).
While the movie wants to use these instances to comment on cancel culture and the Internet, it doesn’t have much to say about either, so the sequences are instead played for (muted) laughs and then cast aside.
An American Pickle, unfortunately, lacks the courage of its convictions and can’t decide what it wants to use its weird premise to say. A stronger thesis statement would have made for a better movie, but what we ended up with does still have its own sort of sweet dill flavoring that makes it an easy, heartwarming watch. It’s not the kind of movie you want to dissect (woe to reviewers), but it’s not a bad way to spend a Friday night (especially if your quarantine watchlist is running low).
Even though it has its flaws, I’m saying this movie is a Feel-Good Good Time. It won’t blow you away, but you won’t regret watching it either. The strength of the premise, Rogen’s performance(s), and the jokes that do land make up for its shortcomings and will keep you engaged throughout.
An American Pickle is streaming now on HBO Max.