Fish-out-of-water comedies are a perennial favourite, and one of the most charming examples is taking a character from one time period and relocating them in another. As part of their launch, HBO Max have collaborated with a number of impressive filmmakers and stars to attract subscribers, and one film on that slate is their own fish-out-of-water comedy 'An American Pickle', featuring Seth Rogen in a dual performance. Rogen's star power, along with a really charming premise, suggested this might be something special. Unfortunately, this is one cucumber that could have done with a bit more time in the brine.
In 1919, Jewish ditch-digger Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen, 'This Is The End') decides that he and his new wife Sarah (Sarah Snook, 'The Dressmaker', TV's 'Succession') should move from their Eastern European village to New York. Not long after settling in Brooklyn and Sarah falling pregnant, Herschel accidentally falls into a vat of pickled cucumbers and is locked in the brine for 100 years. In 2019, he is miraculously discovered and finds himself in a new century and meeting his great-great-grandson Ben (also Seth Rogen), a app developer living on his own. Now Herschel, a century removed from his family and his life, must find a new one in a world where he doesn't fit in, with his only remaining family member just as lost as he is.
The opening act of 'An American Pickle' is tremendously promising, setting up this high-concept scenario as a kind of fable. Of course none of it makes logical sense, but director Brandon Trost (who makes his feature directorial debut after work as cinematographer for Marielle Heller on 'The Diary Of A Teenage Girl' and 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?') uses the language of early cinema to give the film a rich, fantastical texture. In many ways, Trost's experience as a cinematographer is one of the film's two greatest assets, because 'An American Pickle' is that rare comedy with a strong visual aesthetic.
Unfortunately, the storytelling is not as consistently strong. Simon Rich's screenplay (adapted from his own short story) sets up a fascinating dynamic between Herschel and Ben, with both men not only having to navigate one another as their only surviving family, but also dealing with their own individual complicated relationship with grief. The comic potential of Herschel's situation is all there and very clear, but there's a suggestion that the film might have something genuinely profound to say. From there though, and almost instantly, a lazy series of narrative choices pit the two men against one another rather than as a team, and the conflict that usually might have been saved for the emotional crisis later in the story suddenly becomes the bulk of the film, where Herschel, after ruining a business opportunity for Ben, begins to come up with a successful strategy of his own, and Ben puts everything into bringing Herschel down. The result of this is that, despite not one but two really strong performances from Rogen, neither character is very likeable, and it's hard to become emotionally invested in either of their stories. This also impacts the comedy - what felt so charming and genuine in the beginning becomes mean-spirited, and while the film might think it's making a comment on cancel culture and the dangers of unfiltered political discourse, none of it is interrogative and it all just makes its heroes look like assholes. It's a pity, because that setup in the first act is tremendously effective, and with each snarky turn, you feel you're moving further away from what made the film work in the first place.
The result of this is that, despite not one but two really strong performances from Rogen, neither character is very likeable, and it's hard to become emotionally invested in either of their stories.
The fault seems to lie in Rich's screenplay, which essentially reduces the story to an extended sketch that runs far too long, and by the time it returns to its emotional heart at the end, you're left wondering why this wasn't the film you were watching in the first place. This also means that the film has a very erratic comic tone, despite effort from Trost to control it. Despite its faults, the film suggests that Trost has some great instinct as a director, and certainly the strong dramaturgy in his cinematography suggests a filmmaker who at least considers his choices. Seth Rogen is the film's other great asset, building on his work in films like 'Steve Jobs' by demonstrating genuine range as an actor. Both characters are clearly constructed and equally charming, though his performance as Herschel is the real triumph of the two, managing to feel authentic and contemporary all at once. The first and third acts made very particular demands on Rogen exploring the inner life of the two men, and these are the sections where he shines. In the messy, mean-spirited second act, his lesser tendencies as an actor start to creep in, and it's really only his inherent charm as an actor that keep you in any way invested in what you're watching.
'An American Pickle' feels like a film with so much potential, but potential that is never fully embraced. It isn't the job of a reviewer to say what a film should have been, but to offer a critique of the film they're actually seeing. In that spirit, the problem with 'An American Pickle' is that there are really two films here jostling for dominance. Personally, the heartfelt comic fable about two generations of Jewish men finding a new place for themselves in the world while dealing with their grief is the film I was rooting for out of the two, not of two snarky men trying to find new ways to bring each other down. As it stands, 'An American Pickle' has an uneven flavour, where the many ingredients don't entirely come together.