‘An American Pickle’ review: quirky Seth Rogen comedy mixes sweet with sour

Salty gags neutralise a sentimental story in this carefully balanced film about a Jewish immigrant who is preserved in brine for 100 years

What is it with comedians and dual roles? More than a few of Hollywood’s most famous funnymen – from Paul Rudd (Living With Yourself) to Zach Galifianakis (Baskets) – have recently doubled up on screen. If you’re a bean-counting studio head, it’s a great development – one actor playing two parts means half the wage bill. But for the rest of us, is it not off-putting to see two versions of the same star interacting, when you know both got their cues from a tennis ball on a stick? Seth Rogen, famed for playing the stoned man-baby in wacky comedies, is the latest to take on this highly-technical challenge.

Opening on quirky, patriarchal Poland in 1919, An American Pickle introduces Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) – a poor Jewish ditch-digger looking for his way out. After impressing local beauty Sarah (Succession’s Sarah Snook) with a dodgy-looking fish supper, they marry, before violent Cossacks force them to flee to America. Once there, Herschel gets a job in a New York pickle factory and buys his dream graveyard plot for the family burial site. Sadly (or fortunately?), he never gets to use it – as the kooky immigrant accidentally falls into a briny vat, where he is preserved for 100 years. Fast-forward to 2019, and the befuddled European moves in with Ben (also Rogen), his last remaining relative and a Brooklyn-based app developer in need of Great Grandpa’s get-up-and-go chutzpah.

What follows is a high-concept silly-a-thon that, as usual with Rogen movies, requires a fair amount of patience. Obviously, it’s impossible to pickle a human being (although Keith Richards has tried) and the film offers no explanation beyond: ‘It’s a story!’ Rogen’s wholesome charm goes some way to alleviating any scientific roadblocks – and unlike Rudd’s Netflix drama Living With Yourself, An American Pickle sensibly dresses each protagonist differently enough to avoid confusion. Herschel maintains his humble appearance, complete with cap, waistcoat and mega-beard; while Ben adopts the classic hipster look of oversized glasses paired with a buttoned-up flannel shirt. They couldn’t be more different if they were born in different centu… oh, wait.

Seth Rogen
Seth Rogen’s ‘An American Pickle’ has arrived with far less fanfare than his other recent movies. Credit: Warner Bros.

Fashion choices aside, Ben and Herschel differ politically too. The older Greenbaum is very much an anti-gay, anti-liberal, anti-everything traditionalist; whereas his great grandson invents software to root out unethical shopping brands. This plot line allows writer Simon Rich (who penned the short story on which An American Pickle is based) to weave in a thin strand of conservative sentimentality, tackling themes like religion, the decline of the nuclear family and ‘cancel culture’. In lesser hands, the subtle political comments could overpower the film’s whimsical tone. But thanks to Rogen’s restrained but moving performance, and Rich’s smart script, we’re gifted an entertaining piece of comfort comedy which is ideal for this week’s socially-distanced movie night. It’s not too stressful for those struggling with corona-induced anxiety, but not too lightweight to seem boring. In this case, double the actor also means double the laughs.

Details

  • Director: Brandon Trost
  • Starring: Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Molly Evensen
  • Release date: August 7
Advertisement

More Film Stories:

Advertisement