Herschel (Seth Rogen) immigrates to New York with his wife in 1919 hoping for a better life; but then he falls into a vat of pickles and is preserved for a century. Re-emerging in modern Brooklyn, Herschel meets his great-grandson Ben (also Seth Rogen) and the two try to bond across generations and find happiness in their own searches for fortune, family and the American Dream.
Seth Rogen seems to have typecast himself into meta roles as Jewish stoners. In comedies across the late 2000s and beyond he played variations of the same character; semi-fictionalised Seth Rogen. However, there are signs in recent years of Rogen finding a little more depth. He was solid in the Steve Jobs biopic, Steve Jobs. He had a tongue-in-cheek poke at himself with his character in comedy Like Father. And in An American Pickle, he tied a more serious performance to a role further out from his comfort zone than anything he had done before.
Cinematographer Brandon Trost directs An American Pickle in what is just his second feature film. While the film won’t pick up any awards for its simple directorial style, Trost does some interesting things with colour scheming to set the dreariness of life in the ‘old country’ off against the bright excitement of the US. He also cycles back to many of his early shots towards the end of the film, showing a maturity that will serve him well in future productions. An American Pickle feels like a story made for the screen, and for Seth Rogen. High praise.
The film is adapted by writer Simon Rich from his own short story, with An American Pickle having a novella-style vibe that sets it apart from other dramedies. An American Pickle lampoons the ugly side of pursuing the American Dream, with many of its early scenes in the (fictional) Eastern European country, Schlusk, that protagonist Herschel Breenbaum emigrates from hilarious in their sardonic view of the immigrant experience. Lines like “Become rich – like ‘afford my own gravestone’ rich” encapsulates the kind of abject poverty that faced generations of people who left for a better life in the US and gives Herschel’s and great-grandson Ben’s pursuit of their own fortune a comedic edge.
The story gets bogged down in the middle with a forgettable comedy rivalry sequence involving Ben trying to shut down Herschel’s pickle business, but that droll edge is back towards the end of the film, giving An American Pickle a strong and emotional ending.
An American Pickle is a real one-man show. In playing two characters, Rogen risks the kind of slapstick comedy reserved for the likes of Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers. But Rogen offers the right points of difference between the cantankerous yet driven Herschel and the sweet but ineffective Ben to set them off against each other.
Rogen knows these two people well; this could well be akin to a re-enactment of what it would be like for Rogen to meet his own great-grandfather. Rogen’s in-depth understanding means he can draw comedy and pathos from them throughout, even when the character development is derailed amidst the slapstick hijinks in the film’s middle. It all culminates in an ending that is surprisingly touching and features perhaps Rogen’s best ever five minutes of acting.
Sarah Snook also stars as Herschel’s wife, playing well of Rogen for some of the film’s funniest moments. However, Snook hardly has enough material to work with; this is all about Rogen.
An American Pickle is a sweet and funny look at the American Dream; the lives that people led to drive them to search for something better, how we can get lost in our own self-doubt, and the importance of love in chasing that dream. It won’t set the world alight, but it’s a film that points to more serious and introspective turns from Rogen in the future.
An American Pickle lives up to its amusing premise but also manages to deliver some cutting commentary on modern America and some truly sweet moments. Rogen has made some of his best work. 7/10.