Seth Rogen impresses twice over in this uneven comedy that explores the Jewish American identity without quite daring to let it speak for itself.
Seth Rogen plays two characters in HBO Max’s An American Pickle, though both are, in a sense, caricatures of Rogen himself. One, Herschel Greenbaum, an entrepreneurial but hot-tempered Jewish immigrant, represents his cultural heritage; the other, Ben, Herschel’s assimilated great-great-grandson, represents his dorky pothead creative spirit. On their own, these are distinct individuals with the same face but wildly divergent principals, ethics, and personalities, but taken together they’re two halves of the same whole. Many have said that this is an unusual Rogen performance, but to me, it seems like the usual one twice.
This isn’t an especially bad thing, for reasons we’ll get to. But the idea this is some kind of wildly divergent choice of role for Rogen is silly, and in any case, betrays why he helms this adaptation of Simon Rich’s four-part New Yorker story “Sell Out” (Rich himself did the screenplay). Directed by Brandon Trost, Rogen doesn’t disappear inside these characters so much as explain how he understands them; how Herschel’s big-bearded, woolly-hatted traditionalism has become, over time, a soft, pampered, Internet-savvy city kid somewhat detached from the culture whose values his ancestors believed in so steadfastly.
The narrative conceit that allows Rogen to confront himself is also where An American Pickle gets its title. Herschel arrives in New York with his wife (Sarah Snook) and gets a job splattering rats in a pickle factory. He’s a big, simple man who works hard, so when he falls into a tub of brine and is perfectly preserved for a century, he wakes up expecting to find those same sorts of fellas. But he can’t. What he finds instead is a world he no longer understands, full of people who are suddenly mistrustful of the no-nonsense work ethic that built it. He’s a man out of time, and his closest living relative is an orphaned app designer who can’t speak Yiddish and doesn’t know the Jewish prayers. There’s no wonder, really, that they don’t get on, but the film makes such a lengthy point of them not getting on that it starts to feel contrived anyway.
During this interminable middle stretch, An American Pickle stops being a film starring Seth Rogen and becomes a Seth Rogen film, a snarking and bitter game of generational one-upmanship that delays an obvious reconciliation for so long that when it eventually happens some of its power is lost. But not all. It’s a credit to Rogen’s exceedingly well-observed dual performance, his innate understanding of Herschel’s worldview, and Ben as a severely lapsed and self-loathing product of it, that the film is able to locate a touching emotional payoff in what might have otherwise been a silly culture-clash comedy.
That An American Pickle sometimes is a silly culture-clash comedy is its great failing, since it’s a really good study of the Jewish American identity whenever it’s content to not be several other things at once. Rogen seems to implicitly understand what a man like Herschel would feel about the internet, about computers, about social media, about a man who looks just like him but isn’t interested in the sanctity of his traditions and beliefs. And of course, he implicitly understands how Ben sees Herschel’s antiquated spirit as a relic of a past generation that he has evolved beyond. Both are right and wrong in equal measure; both a reflection of the other. That Rogen plays both roles is no accident.
This is why An American Pickle is often so content to focus on Rogen’s face as it stares back at itself. Its dialogue between past and present, between warring aspects of Jewish identity, is a literal one, cutting back and forth between close-ups of Rogen playing two roles that eventually merge into one. It’s also why, when the film busies itself with other things, you notice that it’s putting accessibility over insight. It can’t trust an audience to recognize and appreciate the performance it trusts Rogen to give. I liked this film well enough, but I bet I’d have liked the one it clearly wanted to be a lot more.
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