Seth Rogen Delivers a Brilliantly Two-Sided Performance in Fun but Biting ‘An American Pickle’

There are two key ideas that drive HBO Max’s “An American Pickle.” The first is what would happen if someone from 100 years ago found themselves adjusting to the norms of today. The second is the immense pressure traditions put on future generations. These two ideas work best through the performance by Seth Rogen, who switches from a hardened, masculine Jew from 1919 Eastern Europe, to his modern-day great-grandson, an app developer plagued by insecurity.  Rogen rises above the quirkier holes in the story, delivering a performance of various angles.

The movie opens a hundred years ago in Eastern Europe where Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) works hard in the fields to provide for his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook), while avoiding Cossack raids, anti-Semitic terror and disease. Herschel and Sarah soon make their way to America, landing at Ellis Island. Soon the tough farmer is working killing rats at a Williamsburg pickle factory. An accident results in Herschel falling into a giant tub of pickles, where he is brined for a century. When he is finally uncovered, Herschel wanders into a New York City that has vastly changed. He is put into contact with his only living relative, great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (Rogen). It is Ben who introduces Herschel to the wonders of the age, like water seltzer makers, Alexa and interracial marriage. Ben lives alone in his apartment constantly fidgeting over the details of an app he is trying to get going. Herschel is astounded a Greenbaum offspring has not tried harder to succeed. Even worse, Ben professes to not be religious, which means he has lost touch with his Jewish roots. The two clash when they visit Sarah’s grave at a now dilapidated cemetery, over which a new vodka billboard is being hung. Herschel sees this as a Cossack attack. His heated response to workers hanging the sign gets Ben arrested, which in turn gets Herschel kicked out. Now the two engage in a vicious battle of wills.

“An American Pickle” is a brisk directorial effort by cinematographer Brandon Tost (“The Disaster Artist,” “This Is the End”). Visually his best moments are the opening scenes, where we first meet Herschel in hazy, near-sepia tones evoking old photographs. Rogen looks like a grungier Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.” The migration to America has a hilarious satirical edge, poking fun at those romantic Ellis Island scenes from other movies. These moments are a warmhearted celebration of the immigrant experience. But once Herschel is trapped in brine and released into the 21st century, the movie becomes more allegory than narrative. The screenplay by Simon Rich, based on his serialized short story “Sell Out,” published in the New Yorker, never bothers to seriously contemplate Herschel’s plight as a man quite literally out of his time. It isn’t that he is some stubborn traditionalist stuck in the past, he was put on pause and then awakened in a world he never saw change. There are some funny, sweet moments where Ben shows Herschel how to seltzer water, or explain who David Bowie is. But it all shifts too quickly into Herschel giving advice to Ben about being ambitious and selling his app. Herschel never ponders why his clothes look out of a museum in 2019, or what food tastes like today, or what driving a car must be like. We tend to naturally feel awkward in cities we have never visited, now imagine switching entire eras in a blink. After being kicked out of Ben’s house, Herschel opens his own street pickle business. Visiting a modern supermarket to collect pickles only astounds him in how it’s 90 cents per pickle.

The narrative soon turns into a battle between Ben and Herschel, as the latter tries to succeed at selling pickles in order to get that pesky vodka sign taken down. When Herschel becomes a social media sensation for his accent and blunt words of wisdom (“I will commit great violence against you”), Ben short circuits and tries to sabotage him. It would be a completely silly premise if not for Rogen’s performance and the subtext. Beneath all the time travel and pickle warring, this movie touches on some unique themes about tradition and descendants. Herschel demanding Ben be successful to honor the family name is a critique of the patriarchal shadow cast over many immigrant offspring. It’s never about what Ben wants to do with his life, but about making sure the family name gets some status and looks good. When Ben watches an old graduation video where his parents assure him he will change the world, even giving him a check as a first investment, Rogen perfectly conjures the kind of subtle pressure felt in Jewish, Persian, Latinx, Asian families, or any family where immense expectations are imposed. Herschel almost symbolizes a specter from the past, demanding his heirs accomplish what he set out to do when migrating. There’s real, hidden bite and pain in otherwise funny moments, like Herschel calling out Ben on social media, slamming him as an idiot. Later Herschel’s views on women, Christians and other dicey topics will get him into deep trouble. Rigidity of thought just can’t handle a new reality.

It must be said that this is Seth Rogen’s best performance to date. By switching between Herschel and Ben, he is free to express various attitudes with a great skill. His Herschel is a man of iron, tempered by life running from Cossacks, demanding quick solutions to problems. As Ben we get a more recognizable version of Rogen, likeable and sweet, puzzled as to why not being religious makes Herschel erupt in disbelief. Rogen’s recent controversial radio interview on topics like Israel and mixed marriages, reveals an actor who seriously reflects on many of these questions about roots and identity. It all comes across in the performances. By the end neither man is proven wholly wrong. The compromise seems to be, times change but there is nothing wrong with acknowledging and respecting where you come from. 

“An American Pickle” is most enjoyable for the bigger ideas beneath the gags. Even our obsession with “natural foods” gets a good swipe with a scene involving Herschel’s pickle business. Despite the lingering questions about the film’s time travel logic, they almost fade away because Rogen’s performance is so good. It is also a performance which, even apart from the overall story, has worthy themes to explore about our ancestors planting roots, and how those roots can come back to nudge us.

An American Pickle” begins streaming Aug. 6 on HBO Max.