Seth Rogen Squared is the best thing about “An American Pickle,” as Rogen deftly pulls off a CGI-assisted dual role as an early 20th century Eastern European immigrant and his great-grandson, who become roommates after the former is literally pickled and preserved for a hundred years and is brought back to life in modern-day Brooklyn.
I’ll run that by you again so it can sink in. Rogen plays one Herschel Greenbaum, who along with his beloved bride Sarah (Sarah Snook) flees his fictional homeland after the Cossacks destroy the town on their wedding day. Arriving at Ellis Island and met with casual anti-Semitism, the Greenbaums settle in to pursue the American Dream, with Sarah becoming pregnant and Herschel finding work at a local factory — but one day Herschel falls into a huge vat of pickles, and the factory is subsequently shut down for numerous health code violations, and Herschel is presumed dead and forgotten for an entire century.
When Herschel bubbles to the surface in 2019, he’s been preserved (like a pickle!) and he’s the same age as his only surviving descendant: his great-grandson, Ben (also played by Rogen), who looks exactly like Herschel except he’s clean-shaven and maybe a few pounds heavier.
Nifty setup! (“An American Pickle” is based on a clever and thought-provoking novella by “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich, who also penned this adaptation.) Kudos as well to Rich and director Brandon Trost for opting out of extended and clichéd time travel sequences of Herschel marveling at the wonders of modern-day society, or a sci-fi drama element with government scientists or big corporations wanting to study Herschel in order to capitalize on his remarkable resurrection. There’s a press conference in which the media quickly buy into the ridiculous explanation for how Herschel was preserved, and we get a few quick chuckles from Herschel adapting to modern-day life, and then it’s away we go with the main storyline, which involves not-so-subtle commentary on institutionalized anti-Semitism; the differences between the Old World, get-your-hands-dirty generation and present-day softies, and deep-rooted familial conflicts.
Rogen does a remarkably fine job in creating two distinct characters. He gives Herschel an accent somewhere between Yakov Smirnoff and John Malkovich’s Teddy KGB from “Rounders,” and the gait of a world-weary peasant, whereas Ben is a thoroughly American, modern-day fella who has spent the last five years perfecting an app and hasn’t worked a day of manual labor in his life. (Despite being unsuccessful, Ben has a fabulous, spacious apartment that only somebody like the real-life Seth Rogen could afford.)
The story problems with “An American Pickle” begin when Herschel and Ben visit the dilapidated gravesite of Ben’s parents, aka Herschel’s grandchildren, and Herschel loses it when a billboard for Russian vodka is erected over the tombstones. Herschel is convinced the construction crew are Cossacks, a brawl ensues, and Ben’s arrest kills his dream of selling his app. Herschel and Ben part ways and become bitter rivals, a contrivance that requires Ben to suddenly become vindictive and nasty, which is completely out of character for the sweet and timid guy we’ve come to know.
Herschel becomes a viral sensation after his sidewalk artisan pickle stand captivates the hipster Brooklyn neighborhood. (So, he’s not famous for being a 120-year-old who looks 30, but he IS famous for selling pickles? Sure, why not.) Meanwhile, Ben stews and plots his revenge on Herschel.
“An American Pickle” has some spot-on satire about techno-driven celebrity, and how quickly an instant celebrity can become a pariah. At times it’s reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s 1979 masterpiece “Being There,” as Herschel’s ignorant and simple-minded proclamations are misinterpreted by the masses as profound wisdom. Director Trost also sprinkles in some sly visual jokes, e.g., an online headline reading, “Kanye West Defends Herschel Greenbaum’s Right to Offend.” And there are a few genuinely touching moments, as when Ben and Herschel go through a photo album, and Herschel reacts to seeing pictures of his late wife and the child and grandchildren he never met. Alas, those positives aren’t enough to overcome the dopey and forced rivalry between the two men, not to mention the social and religious and family commentary that grows ever more heavy-handed. Herschel and Ben deserved a better set of circumstances.