“An American Pickle” is an entry in the “I’m My Own Grandpa” genre, in which a character from a previous era is thawed out and gets to spend time with a modern-day descendant, usually played by the same actor. Viewers with very long memories may recall “The Second Hundred Years” with Monte Markham on ABC in the late 1960s. Viewers who subscribe to the new HBO Max streaming platform may recoil from this latest iteration, a genial but fatally slapdash Seth Rogen comedy that raises a few interesting issues before running from them in confusion.
Possibly you feel that two Seth Rogens is double your punishment, but it’s worth noting that he gives a real performance as Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant from Schlupke, Poland. Herschel prospers in early-20th-century New York until he falls into a pickle vat and is suspended in brine for 100 years. He awakes to find his wife (Sarah Snook of “Succession”) long dead and his only living relative a schlemiel of a great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (Rogen), a mobile app developer who lives by himself in Brooklyn.
That’s actually a pretty solid idea for a cross-cultural farce, and whenever “An American Pickle” deals with Herschel negotiating the hipster streets of 2020 Williamsburg in disbelief the laughs are genuine, if easy. (His reaction to the great-grandson’s home seltzer dispenser may be the highlight of the entire movie.) The older Greenbaum is a stern by-your-bootstraps type, and he soon loses patience with young Ben, who seems determined on sabotaging himself. A visit to the late wife’s grave, now overgrown and overshadowed by a billboard for Russian vodka, sets Herschel on a mission to reclaim her memory from the Cossacks by becoming an artisanal pickle tycoon, with his now-estranged great-grandson trying to spike his chances in a comic war of attrition. No, it doesn’t make much sense, especially when Simon Rich’s screenplay maneuvers Herschel into a status as a Chauncy Gardiner-style media sensation.
Rich’s script is based on his own short story, and it’s likely that “An American Pickle” worked better on the page as a Shouts & Murmurs-type diversion. As a movie, with a feature-length narrative that requires backfill, it suggests an “SNL” skit padded out to inordinate length. The direction by Brandon Trost is professional, but the longer you watch, the sillier the story becomes, culminating in an identity switch and generational rapprochement that is simultaneously gooey and far-fetched.
What may keep you watching is a notion “An American Pickle” never develops, which is that the Old World Ellis Island immigrants we tend to celebrate were no different from the immigrants of today, for better and for worse: scarred, strong, and holding on to sometimes blinkered ideas of other people. That melting into the melting pot isn’t as easy as it looks. As Herschel, Rogen honors that idea with a tough, proud, blustery performance. As Ben, he’s just another one of this actor’s gravel-voiced goofballs. Among other things, “An American Pickle” is very, very Jewish, and a scene toward the end revolves around Ben finally joining a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Better they should have said it for the movie.
AN AMERICAN PICKLE
Directed by Brandon Trost. Written by Simon Rich, based on his short story. Starring Seth Rogen. Available on HBO Max. 90 minutes. PG-13 (language, rude humor, artisanal half-sours).