Seth Rogen pulls double duty in the oddly depressing An American Pickle

Seth Rogen in An American Pickle. Photograph by Hopper Stone, HBO Max
Seth Rogen in An American Pickle. Photograph by Hopper Stone, HBO Max /

Seth Rogen pulls double duty as a European immigrant from the 20th century and his great-grandson in the weirdly depressing and existential HBO Max original film An American Pickle.

We’re not ashamed to admit it: When we first saw the trailer for An American Pickle, we thought it was a limited series. Of course, one Google search later and we realized that it was actually an original film produced and released by HBO Max. But after having seen it, we stand by our original (albeit misguided) assumption: This concept would’ve worked much, much better as a television series.

Starring Seth Rogen who pulls double duty in a Lindsay-Lohan-in-the-Parent-Trap type of situation, An American Pickle tells the story of European immigrant worker Herschel Greenbaum, who after falling into a vat of pickle brine, wakes up one hundred years later and has been perfectly preserved. Now living in present-day society, Herschel struggles to adjust to modern ways of life and explores a tumultuous relationship with his great-grandson Ben.

It’s an oddly specific and slightly convoluted plot and is adapted from the short story “Sell Out” by Simon Rich, who also served as the film’s screenwriter. Although Rogen neither wrote nor directed the film, the level of specificity in certain story elements as well, as the deliberate inclusion Herschel as a Jewish immigrant, makes the story feel very personal in a way that most comedies wouldn’t even risk going near.

The story feels so personal, in fact, that the level of genuine emotion, exploration of generational guilt and class struggles often makes the film feel less like a comedy and more like a straight-up drama. While we usually have no issues with comedies exploring difficult subjects and hopping across genres, we can’t say that the approach worked well in An American Pickle. The entire first half-hour has practically no comedy, instead opting to tell the tragic story of a poor immigrant worker losing everything he ever loved.

Even when things do enter “comedy” territory (mostly the hijinks/interactions between Rogen’s two characters, Ben and Herschel, the humor falls flat. The jokes just aren’t funny, and although at some points it feels like the film may be trying to make a statement about “cancel culture” and the power of social media, it’s neither clever enough to drive that point home nor funny enough to justify the attempts at humor. In fact, we have trouble calling An American Pickle a comedy at all, because it just isn’t funny.

The one saving grace of the film is Seth Rogen. Although Ben (the great-grandson) is a walking caricature of a millennial New Yorker and Herschel is a bundle of cliches thrown together and tied up with a silly accent, Rogen brings a level of emotional nuance and depth that makes the dramatic parts of the film work. As we mentioned earlier, the dramatic scenes are the film’s strongest, and often overshadow the comedy — and the same can be said about Rogen’s performance.

While we appreciate that An American Pickle doesn’t drag out its runtime or attempt to be something that it’s not, we wish that, somewhere along the line, the production team would’ve sat down and re-assessed the tone of the story that they were telling. Between Rogen’s performance and Rich’s deeply personal script, the film had all the makings of an off-kilter but genuinely charming drama about reconnecting with one’s family. But instead, what we got was a half-baked Seth Rogen vehicle that barely earns the right to call itself a comedy.

Between the uninspired and eye-roll-inducing artisanal pickle plot device, the devastatingly obvious tonal issues, and the total lack of humor, we can’t help but think of what An American Pickle could be, as opposed to enjoying what it is.

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Have you seen An American Pickle? What’s your favorite Seth Rogen movie? Sound off in the comments below.