“An American Pickle” is the new high-concept comedy that has recently premiered on HBO Max. This quirky picture employs broad, folkloric plot mechanics to discuss the importance of cultural identity and the way it shifts through intergenerational social standards. For the children and grandchildren of immigrants, the expectations from their elders, regarding the success and ability of their integration into American life, is often important to their overall development. Simon Rich’s screenplay, based on his short story titled “Sell Out,” plays around with the idea of a contemporary secular Jewish man meeting the younger version of his great-grandfather, who risked everything to secure his faith, his marriage and his livelihood.
Seth Rogen stars as Herschel Greenbaum, a Slavic immigrant who settles in America around the turn of the century to escape the Cossacks. After Herschel finds work at a pickle packing plant to support him and his wife, he’s accidentally sealed into a vat of brine and preserved for 100 years. Later he’s found and released into our modern world, where his only living relative remaining is his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen).
While Ben tries to update his old-world ancestor in the ways of technological society, Herschel’s yearning to restore his wife’s burial plot underlines Ben’s general loss of faith and the grief he’s suppressed for the death of his own parents.
These deeper themes of loss and regret and reconnecting with one’s cultural and familial roots anchor what is ultimately a silly film that loses its way in the second act.
It’s clear that Rich and director Brandon Trost feel the heat as they fly toward the sun and begin to shy away from the potential of their characters and the story’s harder subjects. The film is light and breezy, and these subjects could have served the potential comedy within natural interactions between Ben and Herschel. Instead, the film leans heavily on tired fish-out-of-water gags and lazy commentary about social media and cancel culture.
Rogen performs wonderfully against himself as the two very different kinds of characters and there’s a sincerity to his performance that mirrors that of the filmmaking — particularly at the beginning and end of the movie. That is why it’s all the more disappointing when the script veers off into sitcom-level, puddle-deep satire in which Herschel and Ben compete to win over the court of public opinion via the culture wars that circulate on Twitter. This needless diversion pulls the story away from its strongest elements, the characters and the themes.
“An American Pickle” fails to congeal as a story but it’s full of heart and made with the best of intentions. Despite totally falling off the rails around the 35-minute mark, I still believe that this is an interesting comedy that attempts to discuss deeply personal subjects. The eccentricities of the magic realist plot bring a level of intimacy and specificity here that suggests a higher elevation that, regrettably, was not achieved with the final result.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.