In the gloomy fictitious Eastern European village of Schlupsk, circa 1919, lives a Jewish ditch digger named Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen). Not one for luck — everything breaks on him: shovels, hoes, and wagons — he meets Sarah (Sarah Snook). A woman, in his words, with “all of her teeth: top and bottom.” He comes to marry Sarah and the pair move from Schlupsk to New York. Partly to build a better life and fulfill their aspirations — Sarah dreams of affording a gravestone and Herschel hopes to one day afford seltzer water — and partly to avoid the pillaging Cossacks rampaging across Europe.
When Sarah becomes pregnant, Herschel promises her that their children, and their future generations, will be “Powerful. Successful. The strongest in the land.” He hopes to accomplish this near-insurmountable feat by working in a pickle factory, where he smashes the furious rodents inhabiting the building. However, due to him falling into pickle brine, and then sealed within the brine’s juices, he becomes trapped in time, perfectly preserved. That is, until he’s discovered by two children one hundred years later, and is united with his only remaining family Ben Greenbaum (Seth Rogen).
Brandon Trost’s HBO Max comedy An American Pickle, while conventional and predictable, ruefully covers generational aspirations and features Rogen’s best performance of his career.
A Jewish satire, and a continuation of Trost and Rogen’s partnership dating back to This Is the End, An American Pickle first explores the connectivity between descendant and ancestor through Herschel and Ben’s relationship. Upon Herschel returning to the modern world, with his husky accent, he’s a kind of Yiddish Austin Powers. Though happy to see the future, he mourns those he’s lost. In Ben, he finds a family member who doesn’t pray for the dead. Who’s not even religious. Worst yet, when the pair visit the family plot, it’s a shabby patch of grass surrounded by a freeway and a leaky billboard advertising vodka. Herschel believes the Cossacks have taken over the grave site, and to restore the family name, he and Ben must buy the land and chop down the billboard.
Rogen plays against himself. For the conversations between Ben and Herschel, Trost relies on body doubles and shots with coverage. As much as the trickeration is apparent, Rogen makes these artificial interactions believable and tangible. Both Ben and Herschel are characters who hurt. Ben, an app developer whose one idea is called Boop Bop — a platform allowing users to scan products and receive its ethical score — hasn’t prayed since he lost his parents. Herschel wants to honor the memory of those lost. While Ben avoids pain, his ancestor finds comfort, explaining “We will bond over our pain.” Nevertheless, the pair become adversaries. Herschel tries to make a fortune as a pickle merchant: scavenging for disused pickles in the trash and brining them with salt and rainwater, while Ben attempts to undermine him.
Even with Rogen’s performance — emoting grief and loneliness — An American Pickle is odd and limiting. While not every Jewish film should be about the Holocaust, just like every Black movie needn’t cover slavery, the satire leans into generational loss and remembering the dead. The oddity of omitting the greatest trauma of all, one that Herschel clearly missed, limits the potential of complex emotions. Also, the satire clumsily addresses cancel culture and the way hot takes fuel Twitter. Not because the narrative says anything untrue, but because the film says nothing at all when referencing these topics. Instead, Trost’s comedy only succeeds due to Rogen and its sharp jokes: from the scant information of how Herschel survived in pickle brine to the many ways the character espouses outmoded old world beliefs that still somehow find a prominent perch in the current political era. Irreverent and strange, what An American Pickle lacks in depth, it finds in Rogen.
An American Pickle is now available on HBO Max