Review | HBO’s ‘An American Pickle’ Is a Tasty Concoction

Not-So-Basic Tale of Two Characters from Varied Points on Ancestral Timeline

Seth Rogan plays Ben (left) and his time-jumping ancestor, Herschel, in 'An American Pickle.' | Credit: Courtesy

Leave it to the restlessly inventive Seth Rogen to take a circuitous route in his own effort to transcend his own comedic typecasting. Despite the creative daring of such projects as the crackpot Apocalyptic tale This is The End, the North Korea-goosing The Interview, and the tour de force Sausage Party, we might tend to consign Rogen to an endless loop of frivolity and sniggering post-adolescence, in the shadow of Judd Apatow. More respect is forthcoming, available now on the new HBO Max portal.

Rogen, growing up a bit at age 38, has recently taken on a role — well, two roles, from different centuries and with very different accents — in the tasty concoction An American Pickle, in which Herschel meets Ben, under bizarre but somehow empathetic circumstances. It’s your not-so-basic tale of two characters from varied vector points on the ancestral timeline: the scraggle-bearded, time-leaping Herschel Greenbaum, from the hard-scrabble life in an early 20th century Eastern European shtetl to the immigrant’s life in Brooklyn and a century’s deep freeze, is flung into the life of his great-great-grandson Ben, a kindly hipster and would-be app-maker concerned with ethical practices.

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Pickles, figuratively and otherwise, work into the scenario laid out in Simon Rich’s script (based on his short story) in a variety of guises, from the pickle vat of an abandoned factory to Herschel’s fickle fate as popular “artisanal pickle” maker in modern-day Brooklyn. And then there is the central metaphorical “pickle” of conflicts and differences between the ancient and contemporary Greenbaums: Herschel reveals his controversial old school values and respects his dead relatives in a Jewish tradition, contrasting Ben’s agnostic, political corrected ways.

Such tensions touch on the more serious considerations between the film’s comic fizz on the surface, concerning familial reckoning across generations and recognizing common ground between radically divergent epochs and technological trappings. As Rogen himself explained in a recent New York Times story, his own grandparents escaped pogroms from the Ukraine, landing in Canada. Their oppressed reality was something fiercely removed from the present day, the present calamity: “Compared to people today,” Rogen said, “who are being asked to stay at home and wear a mask, and society is teetering on the edge of collapse because of their inability to do that, I think that would probably seem a little silly to a generation who fought Nazis.”

Pickle is the directorial debut of Brandon Trost, after establishing himself as a noted cinematographer (including on last year’s chilling tale of mass murderer Ted Bundy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile), and he proves mostly adept at stirring a filmic cocktail with decidedly serio-comic ingredients in the new film. At times, the credulity factor groans from the stress of us accepting the story’s mortality-defying premise. Elsewhere, we relax into the ruse and the double scoop of Rogen.

His carefully delineated characters add up to a doppelgänger odd coupling of men from different eras, hanging, seltzer-swigging, kvetching, and ultimately circling around to an absurd yet touching sense of family bonding. What’s a 100-year age difference between kinfolk?

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