‘An American Pickle’ Is Seth Rogen’s Truly Inspired Jewish ‘Encino Man’

The feeling that seems to have spawned Seth Rogen’s new movie for HBO (which he wrote and stars in) is, essentially, “What would your resilient, industrious ancestors who fled pogroms to preserve their culture and make a life in the new world think of a sniveling, irreligious weakling like you?”

It’s a funny thought, and fairly relatable even for non-Jews — especially so for those of us whose great-grandparents also fled genocides. What would old Mugarditch the Cobbler think of his movie criticizing great-grandson? Do I live my life Armenianly enough? Would he put me in a headlock for comparing us to Jews just now?

For Rogen, the ancestor (played, naturally, by Rogen) is Herschel Grinbaum, a ditch-digger from Schlupsk who woos his crush, Sarah (the beguiling Sarah Snook, aka Shiv from Succession) by buying her a nice dried fish he earns by clubbing rats in a pickle factory. Rogen’s phlegmy, Borat-esque narration and glib deadpan as Herschel (“Sometimes when we want to be alone, we go to very special bog”) works beautifully, especially when paired with director Brandon Trost (making his solo directing debut after working as cinematographer on Popstar, The Disaster Artist, The Interview, etc), whose flair for detail turns the broad comedy of Rogen’s goofy narration into pointed stylistic parody. The entire Schlupsk sequence is probably the funniest, most beautifully executed immigrant flashback comedy since Johnny Dangerously.

The conceit for bringing ancestor Herschel face to face with his modern descendant is the pickle vat he falls into one day while clubbing rats. This preserves Herschel perfectly, Encino Man-ing him right into present-day Brooklyn (I’m fairly sure this movie was called “Williamsburg Man” at some point in its development) and into an apartment with his lone modern ancestor, Ben Greenbaum. Ben, also played by Rogen, and clearly meant to embody the most snowflakey aspects of modern life, has spent the last five years working on an app, Boop Bop, whose function is to scan products and instantly score them according to how “ethical” the company is.

An American Pickle ends up getting little bogged down in its present-day storyline. Aside from the fact that Ben is neither as fun, developed, nor believable as Herschel, the satire of modern Brooklyn is scattershot and tries to cover so much that it never does any one thing all that satisfyingly. Boop Bop begins as a parody of “ethical consumerism” but before it can delve into that, it becomes sort of a comment on cancel culture when the company declines to buy it from Ben because of some personal issues.

This kicks off a feud between Ben and Herschel, which, despite ostensibly being the driver of the entire plot for the next 30 or 40 minutes, is similarly never all that believable. An American Pickle still shows periodic flashes of the genius captured in the first sequence — notably when Herschel delivers his thoughts on Christianity to a large crowd — but to a large extent, Rogen’s script seems to be going for higher and higher concepts to keep from solving the central one we’ve already bought into. Meanwhile, Herschel’s status as the world’s only unfrozen pickle man seems to have left him both relatively unknown and super famous, depending on what the script needs at that particular moment (surely he’d be famous, no?).

Certainly it may hurt An American Pickle that the blasé world of brunch-eating Brooklyn dickheads it depicts seems remote to the pandemic-ravaged furlough hermits that make up its mid-2020 audience. God only hopes that we may once again be able to care who sourced our microgreens; that we may someday have a place to blow our retirement savings on overpriced avocado toast.

Still, it’s more a problem of structure than of timing. The Ben-Herschel feud has such an obvious solution that when An American Pickle finally gets there at the end of the movie, a lot of the 30 or so minutes that came before feel like water-treading. At one point, Ben ends up in Schlupsk reading the kaddish, a heartfelt scene that was clearly personal for Rogen, touching on all the questions of culture, identity, and what we owe our ancestors that inspired the film. (How much of America’s white supremacy problem comes down to people’s disconnection from their pre-American cultural roots, a hole they attempt to fill with vague constructs like “whiteness?”)

It’s a suitable ending, but surely there was a better way to get Ben to Schlupsk than a series of social media controversies. (The movie also elides the fact that most of the real places in Eastern Europe where the Greenbaums would’ve been from never rebuilt their synagogues). How about we declare a moratorium on “going viral” as a plot device, huh?

Occasionally uneven execution aside, An American Pickle packs more laughs into its funny sequences than most comedies can find in three acts. It’s not only funny, but where so many modern comedies are just kind of swiping at jokes, An American Pickle is genuinely inspired.

‘An American Pickle’ begins streaming via HBO Max on Thursday, July 6. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.