If you’ve ever thought, while watching a Seth Rogen movie, that what it really needed was even more Seth, An American Pickle (now on HBO Max) doubles up the comedic actor for you, albeit with mixed results. Playing dual roles—as Brooklynite hipster app developer Ben Greenbaum and also Ben’s great-grandfather Herschel—Rogen dives into perhaps the meatiest role(s) of his career, at least since 2011’s 50/50.
But this isn’t the Rogen you’ve come to know (and love?). In Pickle, he doesn’t smoke even a bit of weed, make any infantile jokes about bodily functions, or come up with any colorful euphemisms for male genitalia. It’s enough, in fact, to make one if I didn’t know better, I’d think Rogen had actually grown up a bit after a career of man-child films like Pineapple Express, Neighbors (and its unfortunate sequel), and his animated romp Sausage Party. Could it be, at age 38, Rogen is ready to become a (gasp!) serious actor?
If An American Pickle is any indication, the answer may well be “yes”. Whether a plague of locusts is also on the way is anyone’s guess.
Though Pickle’s premise is abjectly preposterous (the film is written by Simon Rich, based on his own short story for The New Yorker), it does give Rogen a chance to demonstrate that he’s not entirely made up of pot and potty humor. The proceedings get underway in 1919 as Herschel, an Eastern European Jewish ditchdigger, marries a local woman (Sarah Snook), moves to America, and takes a job chasing rats at a Brooklyn pickle factory. When he accidentally falls into a brining vat moments before the plant is shut down for good, he gets trapped and forgotten—preserved in the pickling juice until he’s discovered 100 years later, as if nothing ever happened.
His only living relative is Ben, who is fascinated by the discovery of his same-aged-though-a-hundred-years-older great-granddad and spends a day showing Herschel skyscrapers, cars, and the wonder that is Alexa. That fascination doesn’t last long, though, as Ben, who has spent five years developing a new app, finds his dreams of success dashed by Herschel, who (long story short) gets the pair arrested by fighting workers at the Greenbaum cemetery.
At this point, the film leaves the fish-out-of-water jokes behind and takes a hard detour into a more darkly comedic arena, leaving Pickle to run out of steam just as it gets going. Blaming Herschel for his failure, Ben kicks the guy to the curb. It doesn’t take long for the oblivious and naive Herschel to land on his feet though, accidentally starting an artisanal pickle startup on the streets of Brooklyn, the promised land of artisanal startups. The still-fuming Ben, meanwhile, does everything in his power to sabotage his great-granddad, veering the film down a completely bizarre and unwelcome alley.
While it’s easy to agree that a simple film solely about a “time traveler” marveling at modern society isn’t sustainable, transforming Ben into a petty and vindictive brat (as opposed to the mildly grumpy failed screenwriter in Rich’s original story) undermines the film as a whole by attempting to turn it into a misguided political and social media satire.
Though Rogen, for his part, does admirable work in the dual roles, and newbie director Branson Trost (cinematographer on a handful of Rogen’s earlier films) seamlessly blends the two Rogens together with great comedic effect, ultimately, it’s not enough. The story does have its moments, to be sure—particularly in the early, pre-brining scenes, which have a vintage, Hudsucker Proxy-ish feel—but Pickle as a whole can’t avoid a bit of a sour aftertaste.