AN AMERICAN PICKLE, directed by Brandon Trost from a screenplay and short story by Simon Rich, is surprisingly not what it says on the tin. On the surface you’d expect another Seth Rogen slapstick fare about men approaching their 40s with all the grace of a cow in a shopping trolley. Instead it’s an oddly touching story filled with delightfully bleak humor about letting go.
Rogen is front and center here, handling dual duties as both Herschel and Ben Greenbaum. Two men of equal age, separated by a hundred years of American life. The gag is that Herschel was accidentally pickled in a workplace safety accident a century prior, only to be brought back to life in yet another freak incident involving a drone. With everyone in his life gone, Herschel is united with his great-grandson, a budding app developer struggling to cope with the death of his parents.
Combining elements of a meet-cute romantic comedy with the fish out water scenarios that Rogen has always excelled at, AMERICAN PICKLE is at its best when it just allows him to be… well, himself. This is probably the best Rogen has ever been, including his stellar turn as Wozniak in STEVE JOBS, and his dual roles as the Greenbaums is filled with poignancy and wit. Either one of these characters could have been a breeze to waffle through, yet Rogen instills them with distinct mannerisms that set them apart.
It’s something I never thought I’d say of the former frat boy actor. His performance is nuanced and delicate. Subtle and even occasionally profound. Who knew.
The story is simple and sweet, though laced with the kind of acerbic wit that seems to be shared by people from this side of Europe. You know, the countries without sun. Herschel proudly proclaims his job as a ditch digger is not the worst you could find, even as he is hands and knees deep in unspeakable muck. When Ben tells him that his parents have passed away, Herschel solemnly asks “murder or regular?” The entire opening sequence is a broadside of farcical humor about Eastern Europe in the 1800s, complete with polio jokes.
Frankly, it would be offensive if it wasn’t so sweet, and that’s a hard trick to pull off. But the gags are always squarely on the shoulders of the Greenbaums. Even as life kicks them in the head (which it often does), the arbiter of their joy and misfortune is the family itself. It’s gallows humor made out of the finest wood.
There are some missteps, mainly during the sluggish middle half as the Rogens are split apart. As Ben tries to explain how things work through the eyes of someone who’s been kicked by the system all their life, Herschel comes from such horrid circumstances that present day recession looks to him practically utopian.
While their rivalry is fun to watch, especially as Herschel learns that he can use unpaid interns as a workforce, the detour into making fun of zoomers as easily rattled hysterics looking for easy answers feels downright lazy. The actual point of ruthless capitalism disguised as folksy populism is more than valid and insightful, but the argument is taken in a direction that serves no one.
Luckily the film pulls itself together by the end, and more importantly knows exactly when to walk away from a good thing. Unlike certain Apatow monstrosities (clocking in at about 18 hours in length), AMERICAN PICKLE tells the joke and drops it the moment the laughs stop coming. How refreshing it is to realize you’re still young when the movie ends.
Streaming now on HBO Nordic, it’s exactly the kind of movie you watch once every few years, chuckling along the way, promptly forgetting it once it’s over.
Sometimes that’s all you need.