Wacky 'An American Pickle' pits a deft Seth Rogen against himself

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
This image released by HBO Max shows Seth Rogen portraying Ben Greenbaum, left, and Herschel Greenbaum in a scene from "An American Pickle." (Hopper Stone/HBO Max via AP)

The new Seth Rogen vehicle, "An American Pickle," is a lot like the foodstuff for which it's named: a quick, tart, satisfying bite, and of course, kosher. The film heralds a return of sorts, or at least a nod to, classic American Jewish cinema (there's a nod to "Yentl"), the likes of which hasn't been seen, it seems, in some time.

The film is the solo feature directorial debut of Brandon Trost, a prominent cinematographer who has worked on many Rogen vehicles like "This is the End," "Neighbors" and "The Interview." It's written by Simon Rich, who adapted the screenplay from his four-part humor series "Sell Out," which ran in "The New Yorker" in 2013. But this is a Rogen film through and through, offering the actor the chance to inhabit two very different roles, playing against himself.

Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a ditch-digger from an Eastern European hovel called Shlupsk, who immigrates to Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century with his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), with dreams of buying their own gravestones and one day trying seltzer. Herschel goes to work in a pickle factory killing rats, where he falls into the pickle vat and is sealed inside. A century later, a drone disturbs the vat and Herschel emerges, fully preserved, alive, and sentient (just go with it). The doctors find his only living relative, great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), a "freelance mobile app developer," and wacky, time-traveling mishaps and misunderstandings ensue.

Rich's series "Sell Out" is a bit more barbed, with a willingness to needle the modern Rich, who is a feckless "script doctor." In the script for "An American Pickle," Rich extends a bit more charity to Ben, who is more hapless than feckless. He leads a comfortable if unexamined life, filling his days with modern comforts, making an app called Boop Bop to tell you if your kale chips are ethical. It's all to distract from the deep sorrow of losing both his parents in a car accident, something his great-grandfather wants to dive right into, details and all.

For Herschel, family, memory and legacy is everything. On a quest to buy back the land where Sarah is buried, in the shadow of a Russian vodka billboard, he starts the hottest new artisanal pickle venture in Williamsburg, with his all-natural brine and reusable jars. Everything old is new again, after all. Stubborn, loyal Herschel is overbearing and out of touch, while the jealous and competitive Ben is eaten up by envy. Their interpersonal feud escalates in a series of increasingly outlandish (yet plausible) events. Anchoring this is a rather deft performance by Rogen, who creates two distinct characters. His Ben may not be that far off his usual, but with bouncing off his Herschel, and with almost no other significant supporting actors, it's an impressive turn from Rogen, especially his facility with Herschel's accent.

"An American Pickle" is swift and rather pat, and even earnest despite its wacky premise and the issues it skirts. With an 88-minute run time, there's just no time to treat the twists and turns with any level of depth, and it avoids fully probing the topics like cancel culture and free speech with which it toys, avoiding the thornier areas. It gestures toward controversial ideas, but it always swerves back to its simple but profound message of togetherness and family, and the personal importance of honoring tradition and memory.


2.5 stars

Cast: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone, Elliot Glazer.

Directed by Brandon Trost.

Running time: 1 hour 88 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for some language and rude humor.

Available Thursday on HBOMax