In ‘An American Pickle,’ Seth Rogen Struggles With Jewish Identity, and With Seth Rogen
A salty giggle with a sour bite, Seth Rogen’s intergenerational twinsing comedy An American Pickle involves an out-of-time immigrant accidentally sealed in a saline marinade for 100 years. “Pickle brine preserved him perfectly,” says a scientist at a frenzied news conference. Ridiculous, yes, but the film self-owns its meshuga premise quickly. “The scientist explains,” intones a narrator with Jedi-mind-trick authority. “His logic is good. It satisfied everyone.”
AN AMERICAN PICKLE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Brandon Trost
Written by: Simon Rich
Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone
Running time: 89 mins
Whether or not you find An American Pickle equally satisfactory depends largely on your own threshold of incredulity, since the slight but charmingly bittersweet fable relies heavily on more than a few eye-rolling plot points as well as how much you enjoy seeing double of genial schlemiel Rogen.
Here he plays Herschel Greenbaum, who, with wife Sarah (Sarah Snook), fled the fictional, Cossack-ridden Eastern European town of Schlupsk to pass through Ellis Island and savor the rat-infested opportunities of 1919 Brooklyn. He also plays Herschel’s great-grandson Ben, an amiable but apparently friendless freelance mobile app developer whose parents died in a car crash and weirdly left him with no other family members. What, both parents were only children? And both sets of grandparents are dead, too? Okay, fine, a stretch, but continue.
The point is, the movie is a Seth-vs-Seth two-hander. The duo’s cultural schism is pretty hilarious, as Herschel’s racist slurs and hardscrabble worldview elicit more than a few bemused OK-Boomer side-eyes from Ben. A survivor of Old-World genocide, Herschel has a pugilistic baseline but still marvels at the unfathomable luxury of his great-grandson having a seltzer machine and more than one pair of socks. Ben is more of a soft-bellied millennial who guzzles kombucha and tries to monetize “woke” shopping. “These kale chips are going to be extra-delicious because I know how ethical they are,” he explains to a confused Herschel. To his great-grandfather, being rich meant affording a tombstone.
What’s surprising is how quickly the two men become enemies. The fissure is family, made more acute because Herschel is devout and Ben isn’t. “Are you not still Jew?” Herschel demands. “Technically,” says Ben. “Organized religion is very regressive.” Ben has no family photos on the wall, and seemingly no interest in talking about them. When they visit their neglected family plot, Herschel wants to recite the mourner’s Kaddish while Ben stares at his phone, perusing a click-bait list of “Cute AF” animals.
Disgusted, the penniless and homeless Herschel starts his own pickle business by dumpster-diving for cucumbers behind an organic grocery store and reclaiming dirty glass jars from piles of trash. Turns out, rainwater from gutters makes for a delicious brine. The hipsters embrace olde-tyme Herschel as an authentically artisanal pickler, and his garbage-food cart becomes a sensation. Ben’s spiteful reaction: to destroy his kin.
An American Pickle carries a searing sadness inside its gherkin-flavored shenanigans, a bitter sense of loss that gives this flaky misfit immigrant story unexpected heft. The daft narrative contrivances are a stretch, but the emotional resentments, the guilt-ridden sense of unfulfilled destiny, the rootless angst, come off as genuine. Best part: director Brandon Trost knows to keep things brisk. At a hair under 90 minutes, An American Pickle isn’t one minute longer than it needs to be. And it really doesn’t need to be very long. Sure, it’s not a feast, but it’s definitely a bracing brackish treat.