In An American Pickle Seth Rogen plays Herschel, a Jewish immigrant in 1920 who falls into a vat of pickles and gets discovered 100 years later in modern day New York City. The brining process somehow preserved his body – how this is “scientifically” explained is so frank and flippant you can’t help but laugh. As Herschel sits at a press conference reporters aggressively demand an explanation, one scientist points to a chart as Herschel’s voiceover simply states, “The scientist explains. His logic is good. It satisfies everyone,” in an oversimplification that’s both hilarious and refreshing.
An American Pickle, written by Simon Rich and directed by Brandon Trost, doesn’t concern itself with details, because it knows they don’t matter. This is a comedy after all. It’s much like a songwriter who doesn’t care what his lyrics say because, let’s face it, people remember the melodies more. They’re not wrong. However, later the film tries to sprinkle in some commentary on cancel culture and political correctness, but does so more as a way to explore the “what if” rather than because it’s actually interested in those topics.
Herschel wakes up in 2020 to find that his only living relative is his great-grandson Ben, who is the film’s other great trick. Both Herschel and Ben are played by Seth Rogan in contrasting roles so different we quickly forget they’re played by the same person. Herschel, the immigrant who crossed an ocean only to be preserved in pickle juice for a century and his heir Ben, an aimless app developer who lacks self-confidence and ambition. It’s now up to Ben to show his unpickled great-grandfather the ways of the modern world.
Herschel and his late wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), escaped Russian Cossacks back in their home country. They hoped for a better life in America, and, for better or worse, they got it. Their dreams were quaint. Herschel’s life goal was to taste seltzer water, while Sarah dreamed of affording her own gravestone. Prior to his accident, Herschel was able to make her dream come true. However, he had yet been able to afford seltzer water. But in 2020, Ben has an instant seltzer machine in his apartment. Herschel’s big dream is fulfilled within minutes.
The hysterical fish-out-of-water concept runs dry at times, but the film remains interesting as a pretty realistic view on how standards and expectations have changed since 1920. Standards are higher, proof of the immense opportunities available today, but so have expectations, which can border on unrealistic. These social expectations are what often prevent so many from achieving their own American Dream. Paired with those higher standards, it can seem like we’re pushing a boulder uphill.
After an unfortunate misunderstanding involving billboards and tombstones Herschel and Ben get into a fight and Herschel swears he will become more successful than Ben without any of his modern resources. And he does. With an almost-antiquated level of dedication and hard work, Herschel establishes his own rabidly popular brand of pickles, selling them out of his cart on the street. However, the perils of modern standards (e.g. health codes and social media censorship) continuously set him back.
An American Pickle has perhaps the best mirror image effects I’ve seen. There’s almost no consciousness to it at all, and we quickly forget that Ben and Herschel are both played by the same person. Herschel is brash and abrasive, while Ben lacks assertiveness and self-assurance. The effect they have on one another is very roundabout and indirect, yet still very sweet nonetheless. Rogen plays each character with a decisiveness that has us wondering why he’s never stepped out of his normal shtick before.
As the century-brined Herschel Rogen gives one of the best solo-actor performances I’ve seen in awhile. Other characters and actors exist in this movie, but they’re largely inconsequential, almost like they don’t exist. This one lives and dies by Rogen. With an Eastern European accent, Rogen has never before played a character so different from his typical roles. For anyone who’s ever thought his comedic abilities are tied to his iconic delivery, this proves how talented Rogen is – or could be – regardless and how much natural charm he has.
Trost does a good job making sure Rogen doesn’t go too off the rails of this very specific story, but still brings the best out of him in both roles. The director makes sure every last ounce of comedy is squeezed out of each scenario and, despite massive tonal inconsistencies, keeps the humor crisp. However, there are other factors at play.
An American Pickle is much breezier than the controversial topics it (almost) explores. You’ll have fun with the bizarre premise and watching Rogen work movie magic in his dual roles. At a brief 88 minutes the film could use a bit more meat. We attach ourselves to both Ben and Herschel, but we rarely know why. Herschel is basically always played for laughs, so he becomes merely a device. So when Ben is vindictive, he’s completely unlikable, thus making the film void of a character to latch on to. When it comes time to resolve the conflict, it feels shoehorned and character development gets rushed.