An American Pickle
An unconvincing comedy that wastes the opportunities of its premise
Seth Rogen has been riding high in the comedy wave, as he has dominated the box office and comedic genre in film for nearly two decades. However, with the increasing bet on superhero films to open big in theaters, and the dwindling opportunities that comedies get, it makes sense for Rogen to look into the streaming world as his future. His latest venture is the first original film for HBO Max, Warner Media’s new streaming site.
An American Pickle (2020) is the story of a 1919 Eastern European immigrant Herschel (Seth Rogen) who after emigrating to New York with his family, accidentally falls into the pickling tub of the factory he works in. This allows him to be preserved for 100 years until 2019 where he is reawakened. Here he finds his descendant, great-grandson Ben (Seth Rogen as well), and the clash of times and cultures is witnessed.
On paper, the film seems to promise many laughs. Such as the comparison of early 20th century immigrants and their customs with the Brooklyn hipsters that Herschel discovers in his modern-day neighborhood. Having Herschel look at society from a distanced point of view could not only have provided some insightful commentary of Western society’s customs, but also some ample material for humor in such confusion. However, An American Pickle seems to want to focus more on a rivalry between Ben and Herschel that seems to come out of nowhere.
The film is the feature film debut for director Brandon Trost, who previously worked in the camera departments on many of Rogen’s films. Trost is able to provide a competent look for the film, and the doubling of Rogen as two characters is mostly edited well. However, Trost isn’t able to infuse much urgency or importance to the story. The fact of a 100-year-old man being perfectly preserved and reawakened, is almost shrugged off, and the shock of Herschel entering the modern world is played extremely timid. This bland direction makes the entire film seem indecisive of its identity between a comedy sketch and a mainstream comedy.
Characters out of their time has already been done in comedy before, most notably with Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman in Kate & Leopold (2001). That film also took place in New York, and yet was able to capture the imbalance of two characters from two different times, while seeing the chronologically different values slowly make each other better people. An American Pickle’s characters seem to be wandering, waiting for the plot to throw something at them, and when it does it seems to be contradictory to the characters that had been set up anyway. Even the supposed comedic situations that Trost and writer Simon Rich set up, are shortened to such a point that they feel like half the set-up of a joke.
The film is doubly a Seth Rogen show. The actor has been criticized in the past for not proving to have much acting range; however, his impersonation of Herschel proved to be rather surprising and mostly convincing. In fact, Rogen seemed more comfortable in the accented and exaggerated Hershel than in the more typical Rogen-role of Ben, delivering comedic lines with more ease, and bringing a reality to his plights.
On the whole, however, the film seems to fall flat on both the comedic side as well as the character and plot-driven aspects. An American Pickle’s premise seemed to promise so much, but it throws away opportunities to shine a light on social norms of immigration and the attitudes of modern society. The end result is a timid and rather forgetful film, that disappointingly downplays Rogen’s streaming debut.