Last year saw hit-and-miss comic actor Seth Rogen achieve a rather high level of near-brilliance opposite Charlize Theron in the energetic political dramedy Long Shot. A film should’ve been more of a legitimate splash with moviegoers. Its cult stock might only grow with enough time passed. That’s the bankable Hollywood star side of Rogen; but what about his character actor side? As more films pivot to reach consumers at home, what seems even less of a box office surety is in a comfortable niche debuting as the first original narrative feature for HBO Max. It’s Rogen against Rogen, a dual role to extend his reach, in the surprisingly pleasing An American Pickle. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and even at 88 minutes, it feels very long for the tooth. But it’s impossible not to get pulled in by its charm, and then some.
Adapted by Simon Rich from his novella Sell Out, a hit for readers of The New Yorker, Pickle wastes nary a moment to establish its old world culture. Only to interject our modern-day, and contrast the two. At points jarring, later astonishingly fluid. We see Rogen begin his journey, around the early 20th century. Growing up in the Eastern European village of Schlupsk, Herschel Greenbaum doesn’t have much going for him. He’s a Jewish born ditch digger, not much else. At least until he tries to woo his marketplace crush, the kindly Sarah (Sarah Snook of Succession fame). A spark lights between them, bonding over similar clothing, and run-ins with a Cossack gang. Soon after, they immigrate to New York where Herschel starts in entry-level custodial work at a pickle factory.
Said factory is where poor Herschel falls into an absurdist fate, while outmanned by a large family of rats, lands into a fermentation vat, trapped for 100 years. Flash forward to 2019, and he awakens, found by scientists in a preserved condition. His New York of newborn prosperity is gone, taken over by conformist industry and online trendsetters. A more controlled setting where Herschel’s youthful great-grandson Ben (also portrayed by Rogen) best thrives. A creature of habit, a fan of every sort of milk that exists and uniformity with his socks. The polar opposite of Herschel who is lost in this new world. Whereas Ben’s looking to start up an app for an untapped market, Herschel wants to regain the pride in his family’s name, start his own artisanal pickle industry.
A deliberate culture clash then ensues, running the gamut between a war for free speech and one for casual trendsetting in a harsh society. Comedians Eliot Glazer and Kalen Allen might be named the unsung heroes for the latter. Nobody would ever expect a Seth Rogen film to shed light and crack a jab at such deeper themes. Director Brandon Trost makes a stalwart promotion from cinematographer of many of Rogen’s films to first-time director. He, alongside Rich, an SNL vet and scribe behind TBS’s Miracle Workers, take on this laundry list like genuine naturals. However, their wattage of experience in the comedy realm cannot quell the precise challenge of pacing in this whimsical tale. Even at a brisk 88 minutes, American Pickle is starved for juicier plot points. It moves quickly thru Herschel’s plight, his millennial counterpart trapped in the back seat.
Cut Ben out of the picture entirely, it’s suddenly more of the one-man show it was destined to become, that would last only an hour. Expand his role, and it could flow better while exploring that duality of past over present. What we get is a messy amalgam of multiple ideas, jumping from one to the next with little time spent around each. Not that it’s too much of a terrible thing. Pickle is still triumphantly funny as a satire, a major case for Rogen maturing as a comedian before our eyes. For all the more serious roles he’s embarked on as of late, and for all the flaws this story tacks on, it’s perhaps the first time, at least since 2011’s 50/50, where the Canadian native can truly show pride in merging the two.
Like many of his works prior, Rogen continues to thrive best amid a strong collaborative group. He may be the lead actor, and no less his own great sparring partner. Nevertheless, he’s not the only working part bringing a crunch to this almost delightful gem. Trost puts full faith for the film visual sense of industrialization in the hands of DoP John Guleserian (About Time), making Pittsburgh and adjoining woodland area feel like a true Anytown, USA. In the work of composer Nami Melumad, we have a persistent sense of the classical, as if Fiddler on the Roof collided with Carl Stalling’s best Looney Tunes score. In the presence of the underutilized Miss Snook, many are discovering see a great new talent. And by a smaller extension, in casting Jorma Taccone as a potential investor to both Ben and Herschel we see the fragility of opportunities missed.
Of all the major studio comedies that before a pandemic hit would have duked itself, quickly burning out in the box office, An American Pickle proves there can be a home for comic yuks with a low-key spin at home. Had I seen this in a theater, it’s very likely my opinion wouldn’t be as flexible. While its plot lacks any sort of focus, navigating through a few different things in a directionless path, Rogen is ever the charm master, making any sort of lag in the story forgivable. Certainly, a far cry from a decade or so ago when spirited vulgarity was key. He’s more willing in 2020 to dial that down, and make character and setting count for much more.
This Pickle won’t be for everyone; even his die-hard fans may be split. But at a time when quarantined film fans are eager for fresh material, it’s hard not to be compelled, pleased, rib-tickled even, by something daring to be the breath of comedic fresh air we’re all looking for. Particularly with a good herbal aftertaste. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
An American Pickle is currently streaming on HBO Max; rated PG-13 for some language and rude humor; 88 minutes