Two Rogens both funny, sweet
In “An American Pickle,” a Polish immigrant falls into a vat of pickle brine and wakes up, alive and preserved, 100 years later. Everyone he ever knew is long dead, the Brooklyn he lived in has been utterly transformed, and the only contact he has is his greatgrandson — who looks just like him, just without the beard.
Seth Rogen plays both roles and brings a lot to them. As a comedian, he knows where the jokes are, and his timing and light touch are indispensable. But he’s also an appealing, sensitive actor, and this becomes important here, too. As Herschel, the immigrant, he sug
“An American Pickle”: Comedy. Starring Seth Rogen and Sarah Snook. Directed by Brandon Trost. (PG-13. 90 minutes.) Available to stream on HBO Max starting Thursday, Aug. 6.
gests a limited understanding of life, but one nonetheless firmly grounded in family and tradition. Meanwhile, Ben, the descendant, knows a lot more but is sure of nothing.
Both characters have grief in common — Herschel for his wife and his world, and Ben for his parents — but Rogen tunnels inside and makes grief look different on each.
Once “An American Pickle” establishes the situation, the movie becomes something of a scattershot satire of political correctness, with Herschel becoming a celebrity and then losing his luster when he starts offending everyone with his sexist, antigay, antiChristian ideas. Though it’s a little farfetched that many would take offense at the antiquated ideas of a genuinely antiquated man, this is satire and that might be the point.
“An American Pickle” is less effective at delivering on the logic of the premise. For example, anyone transported into the future would want a crash course in history, particularly the history relevant to one’s own life. Is it really possible that a PolishJewish immigrant would never once hear about the Holocaust? In “An American Pickle,” not only does no one ever tell Herschel, but at one point, Herschel and Ben
visit the old neighborhood in Poland and find it relatively unchanged.
Of course, that’s a weird criticism of a comedy — why didn’t you mention the Holocaust?
Obviously, that would be a comedy killer. But “An American Pickle” is just serious enough to make us take the situation seriously.
The movie is on surer ground when it contrasts the vision of life in old Poland versus modern America. When Herschel meets his future wife (Sarah Snook), they bond over everything they have in common — “her parents were murdered by Cossacks, and my parents were murdered by Cossacks.” They have big dreams in common, too. She wants to be rich, “like Icanaffordmyowngravestone rich.”
That none of this seems snarky, but sweetly human, is largely thanks to Rogen, who never makes Herschel ridiculous, but aspirational, as if he has a vision he’s working toward. He is, in a sense, what we picture when we imagine our ancestors — that without quite knowing it, or quite ever seeing it, they were working very hard on their noblest task, to bring us into being.
Seth Rogen portrays both Ben Greenbaum (left) and greatgrandfather Herschel Greenbaum in “An American Pickle.”