It’s tempting to jump to a lot of conclusions about Seth Rogen’s intentions with An American Pickle. Rogen plays the dual roles of Ben – a contemporary web entrepreneur living in Brooklyn – and Herschel, Ben’s great grandfather, who has been living in a state of suspended animation for the last 100 years after a freak pickling accident. Now, what’s tempting about the whole thing is that we have Rogen playing off Rogen, so what’s he trying to say about himself? (What’s really tempting about it is there’s just not much else going on right now. It’s August, a bad time for movies anyway, but this year is especially bleak.)
Kind of surprisingly, the movie avoids a lot of the fish out of water stuff you might expect. Yes, Herschel is surprised Ben has as many socks as he does, but when Herschel’s lack of knowledge of technology is made a plot point, it’s usually used as a weapon against Herschel. But is this movie about Seth Rogen’s own id? Is this Rogen himself grappling with his own thoughts on fame, his online persona, human compulsion, or his own religious faith? (Which, with that last one, we are actually seeing play out in the press right now.) Or is this just an idea by Simon Rich that Rogen thought was funny? Probably the latter. But, I’m bored, so I’ll make a bigger deal out of it than it maybe needs to be.
An American Pickle is more interesting than laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s introspective, without at all seeming that way. Herschel is brash and has a million outdated ideas about society, but has a good heart and his motivations are pure. And, yes, he winds up getting himself canceled after Ben (maliciously) recommends Herschel start a Twitter account and share his unfiltered thoughts with the world. Ben is envious of Herschel because Ben’s “big business idea” failed and Herschel becomes an internet sensation for making street pickles that everyone in Williamsburg loves. (Look, Williamsburg hipsters are always an easy target. I live in Manhattan and I have not been anywhere other than Manhattan since March, and even I kind of miss Williamsburg right now. So, I’m going to let this slide.) Again, I like to think there’s more going on here. It’s Seth Rogen, looking at his brash id, wondering why he can’t just run with that, then purposely sabotaging that id. (I point to the calendar one more time.)
Though, in comedies, one of Rogen’s biggest strengths is just riffing with other characters (a great example of this is last year’s Long Shot with he and Charlize Theron just trading lines). Rogen is so good at this and does it so effortlessly, I honestly think he makes the people around him better. I wouldn’t even call it a “trick,” because I think it’s just his natural reaction, but Rogen’s laugh is so infectious and so profound, it gives a person a sense of confidence to keep trying. (I’ve experienced this when interviewing Rogen. When he laughs at something dumb you say, it makes you feel really good. I can see how on set this would encourage actors to keep going with him.) But in An American Pickle, he’s doing this with himself and it’s not quite the same. The timing just feels a little off. There’s a scene in the credits where Ben and Herschel are watching Yentl and it’s just not quite as funny as we think it’s going to be. The whole movie is kind of like that. But like I said, it’s the premise that drives this film: a nice man from 100 years ago who becomes a media sensation, then gets canceled on Twitter.
As a bit of an aside: An American Pickle will be on HBO Max this weekend, a service there’s a good chance you already have and may not know it, at least if you already have an HBO subscription. I wouldn’t recommend subscribing to HBO Max just to watch this alone, but if you already have the service, it’s definitely “worth a watch.” (Please, someone put that pullquote on a poster! “An American Pickle is definitely worth a watch.” – Mike Ryan, Uproxx) That said, I’ve been pretty impressed with HBO Max so far. It has arguably the deepest lineup of films of any streaming service. It’s legitimately impressive. There was one week I watched The Battle of Algiers, Bonnie & Clyde, and When Harry Met Sally. So add in something like An American Pickle and I do really like what they’re trying to do. They don’t need a mass influx of new films like Netflix does, but something like this every now and then still makes the service feel fresh.
‘An American Pickle’ begins streaming this coming weekend on HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.