Few contemporary actors have stayed in their lane as consistently as Seth Rogen, whose raspy stoner chuckle radiates with what-see-is-what-you-get conviction. “An American Pickle” turns that archetype inside out: Playing both an Eastern European Jew tossed into modern-day Manhattan through the magic of the brining process, as well as that same character’s bumbling modern-day great-grandchild, Rogen’s bizarre dual performance explores the roots of the slacker archetype in Jewish guilt.
It’s a total one-note joke — Tevye the Milkman meets “Encino Man” — and Rogen runs with it as far as he can, while the movie struggles to keep pace. Pitched somewhere between outrageous satire and sincerity, the movie has a tough time finding its priorities, but it’s endearing to watch it try. After all, that’s the same conundrum facing Ben Greenbaum, the modern-day New Yorker tasked with orienting Herschel Greenbaum to 21st century life even as the descendant has a hard time figuring out his own role in it.
But let’s back up for a minute. Directed by the talented cinematographer Brandon Trost (“The Disaster Artist”), “An American Pickle” adapts the short story “Sell Out,” by Simon Rich, who also wrote the screenplay. And it sure does show those concise roots: The bulk of the movie’s appeal has been established within the first 10 minutes, and it mostly coasts from there, as even the zanier twists rely on Rogen’s goofy turn. But those 10 minutes are so satisfying on their own terms that they help sustain the fragmented story to come.
Shot in a boxy aspect ration and the delicate colors of a Terrence Malick filter, the “American Pickle” prologue encapsulates the history of Jewish immigration pre-WWII with a charming off-kilter energy that would make Sholom Aleichem proud. With broken English filtered through a comical Yiddish accent, Herschel narrates the dramatic history of his young adulthood, beginning with his rough-and-tumble shtetl life in 1919 in the invented town of Schlupsk. It’s here that he courts soulmate Sarah (“Succession” breakout Sarah Snook, sadly underutilized) with the obvious romantic gesture of a smoked fish, and the pair get married at the center of town just in time for Cossacks to show up and slaughter their village.
Where “Fiddler on the Roof” winds down, “An American Pickle” gets going. It’s immigration time, as Herschel and Sarah beam with anticipation while riding past the Statue of Liberty, and soon they’ve become typical Brooklyn immigrants loaded with confidence about the land of opportunity. In short order, Herschel makes bold predictions to his pregnant wife about the success of their offspring and finds potential as the manager of a pickle factory. Everything’s going his way just as a rat infestation scares him into a vat, where he remains frozen for generations to come.
Nothing in “American Pickle” can match the silly storybook fantasy of its opening moments, but they do a good job of getting us hooked. Waking up in America circa 2019 — the year “American Pickle” was made, of course — Herschel finds himself poked and prodded by cartoonish scientists, dissected by the media, and just as easily forgotten. Sarah’s long gone, and he’s never met his son or grandchild, both of whom found plenty of success chasing the American dream. All Herschel has left is Ben, a lonely Brooklyn hipster desperate to sell his idea for a tech service nobody actually wants. A trim, bespectacled young man with misguided ambition, Ben’s certainly more mature than the type of Rogen characters the actor was playing 15 years ago. But it’s easy to imagine him as somewhere on the same family tree as “Knocked Up” loser Ben Stone (perhaps he was named for the guy?), and only slightly more committed to making something of himself.
Regardless, this Ben provides a hilarious contrast with the ancestor that shares the screen with him. Movie magic has duplicated the same actor in one frame countless times before, but there’s such a remarkable disconnect between Ben and Herschel — and their awkward chemistry is so convincing — that they may as well be different performers altogether. It’s the first time since he played the Woz in “Steve Jobs” that Rogen has found material that actually pushes him into new territory, but this time he does so without negating his comedic instincts.
There’s not much to Ben aside from melancholy that occasionally bursts into outright frustration, but that only gives Herschel more to push back on. A wide-eyed beardo who somehow never sheds his old-world attire, Herschel speaks in bursts of Semitic overstatement, resulting in a gonzo turn that’s equal parts Yaakov Smirnoff and Borat. And of course he immediately casts a judgmental eye on Ben’s failed entrepreneurial ambitions: “You vork for five years,” he growls, eying his great-grandson’s studio apartment. “How come you no sell?”
The tension between the men only rises from there, and after an ill-conceived visit to the old family plot (where Herschel decides a billboard with a Smirnoff ad is the equivalent of a Russian invasion), the pair spend the night in prison and Ben decides he’s had enough with the family bonding thing. Herschel hits the streets, committed to showing his great-grandson what real work looks like; somehow, through an amusing montage of dumpster diving for cucumbers and filling jars with rainwater, he goes from wandering loon to artisanal pickle salesman, becoming a viral phenomenon in the process — all to spite Ben, and give him a lesson in determination.
The ensuing war between the men unfolds under increasingly outrageous circumstances, and it’s here that “American Pickle” loses grasp of its material, careening into vast and unfocused satiric terrain: Herschel goes from enjoying life as a social media celebrity, to being condemned as a bigot, and ostracized as an immigrant, while the world of the movie turns out to be as exaggerated as its central character. (Onur Tukel’s under-appreciated “Catfight,” in which Sandra Oh and Anne Heche keep knocking each other into comas and reawakening across generations, managed this kind of expansive go-for-broke satire with more consistency.) As Herschel discovers the paradoxes of American society, the title of “An American Pickle” takes on a double-meaning as the movie aims for a savage takedown of the country’s exceptionalism, but it’s not quite sophisticated enough for the task at hand.
Trost, who previously co-directed the hilarious dystopian dance gang movie “The FP,” is no stranger to taking an unusual premise to certain extremes. “An American Pickle” represents an attempt to give that impulse more accessible form, and Rogen takes it there. But the nature of Herschel’s conundrum raises many questions: Made in the midst of a resurgence in blatant anti-Semitism across the U.S., it’s a strange choice for “An American Pickle” to reveal that Herschel’s greatest backlash comes from…violent Christians? The movie sidesteps the most alarming aspect of Jewish persecution — its resurgence in public over the last four years — and never even gives Herschel a chance to learn about the Holocaust. The closest it comes to acknowledging the realities of Jewish struggle comes from a passing exchange with Ben after they both endure hard times. Herschel: “If one thing true in America, once you say terrible things, you will never be a success.” Ben: “That is definitely not true at all.”
If “American Pickle” had the nerve to go deeper (and darker) into that sentiment, it might have mustered the complexity of the performance Rogen has pulled off here. Still, it’s enjoyable enough to watch the actor single-handedly rescue the high concept surrounding him. It’s also easy to see why a studio like Sony passed off “An American Pickle” to HBO Max, as the movie doesn’t exactly register as an easy marketing win. Nevertheless, there’s a certain appeal to the kind of escapism the movie offers that makes it readymade for the challenges of the 2020 climate greeting its release. Herschel Greenbaum may not know what he’s doing, but that never stops his commitment, and he’s a welcome embodiment of survival against impossible odds. While Ben tends to kvetch about his failures, Herschel charges forward, and a little chutzpah goes a long way.
“American Pickle” will be available to stream on HBO Max on Thursday, August 6.