A struggling laborer named Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) immigrates to America in 1919 with dreams of building a better life for his beloved family. One day, while working at his factory job, he falls into a vat of pickles and is brined for 100 years. The brine preserves him perfectly and when he emerges in present-day Brooklyn, he finds that he hasn’t aged a day. But when he seeks out his family, he is troubled to learn that his only surviving relative is his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen), a mild-mannered computer coder whom Herschel can’t even begin to understand.
An American Pickle is a movie that caught my attention the moment I saw a commercial for it while watching television the other night. Up until that commercial aired, I had not heard a single thing about it which surprised me because I am genuinely a fan of Rogen’s work. Yes, he has had his fair share of duds over the years, but the same can be said about a lot of actors.
While it’s definitely not without its missteps, Brandon Trost’s An American Pickle is a fascinatingly strange movie that you just can’t help but appreciate. It’s not one of the best movies of the year or anything – not even close – but it is most certainly one of the strangest and most ambitious so far.
Apparently Rogen had the idea for this film as far back as 2007 but wasn’t able to get it made until now and I’m glad he finally did. This movie was quite entertaining from beginning to end even if it didn’t have a ton of meat on the script. Like with most movies, I didn’t go into An American Pickle knowing anything about it as I only saw that one commercial. I literally just knew it was a new Seth Rogen movie and that was it, and I’m glad I went in as blind as I did.
A large majority of this story plays out like some sort of weird, trippy episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm or something. It has that sort of sitcom-esque feel but not in a bad way. It was actually kind of fascinating to see the story of a man who was alive one-hundred years ago suddenly wake up in present-day America after being preserved for such a long time and have to adapt to modern life.
We see him do things like dance to music for the first time in a century, we see him get his mind blown by how easy it is to make a cup of coffee nowadays. He is absolutely shocked to hear about something called a taxi and has to learn how it operates and what it does. Have we seen this done before? Sure. But the way Trost approaches this story was fresh and funny. On top of all of this, Rogen is just great in the film as well. I was truly stunned to see how well he managed to pull off two completely different performances and was quite happy to see how much he committed to each of them.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the dynamic between Rogen’s two characters Herschel and Ben. Herschel is absolutely the definition of an old-timer, for obvious reasons. Ben is a computer programmer who has spent the past five years working on a product called Boop Bop which rates companies on ethics. It doesn’t take long at all for the two of them to realize that they have nothing in common which is when the arguing and fights start to happen. The duality and polar-opposite characters of Ben and Herschel actually made for some of the most interesting and entertaining characters of the year so far. It was deeply funny to see how these men had to deal with one another during one scene and then the next.
If I had to pinpoint the biggest problem with An American Pickle, it would have to be that the film never really fully commits to its outlandish concept. What I mean is that screenwriter Simon Rich doesn’t go nearly as deep into this story as he could have. There are a lot of wild things that happen throughout the course of the film, but sadly, we don’t really get a lot of insight into them. One moment, in particular, shows a group of citizens incredibly angry at Herschel and it’s supposed to be a sad scene where the audience is supposed to feel extremely bad for him. The problem is that we never see how it affects Herschel himself. He just kind of eats up all the complaints and moves on.
There are a lot of themes that the film tries to tackle and it doesn’t really do any of them justice. At least, not one-hundred percent. It makes attempts at touching on capitalism, cancel culture, and religious values but doesn’t go deep enough. It’s all relatively surface-level stuff which was quite disappointing to see. Had this film went for it and actually told a compelling story with layers, this might have been one of the best and most surprising movies of the year. But what we got is a funny and entertaining movie with not a lot of substance or messages to take away from it. With some movies, that’s okay. An American Pickle is one of those movies. It’s funny and shockingly fun to watch, but just know that this isn’t going to be a heavily deep experience.
An American Pickle may not delve deep enough into its great concept or themes, but it makes up for it with an amazingly funny dual Seth Rogen performance.
Overall Grade: B
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and rude humor
Directed by: Brandon Trost
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: August 7, 2020
Running Time: 89 minutes