An American Pickle Review

What’s better than one Seth Rogen? Well, I can name many things like chocolate, coffee and Adam Driver, but hypothetically, if one were to be a Seth Rogen super-fan, what’s better than one Seth Rogan? Why, TWO Seth Rogens of course!

Business is picking back at the cinemas, as among the batch of re-releases to bring the crowds back, there are a few new releases, one of which is this film, a HBOMax Original, the first of its kind I have seen, we don’t get that particular streaming site over here in jolly old England, so it’s seen a simultaneous cinema release also.

I remember hearing about this film months ago, maybe even back at the turn of the year, and thought it was an interesting concept. I find Rogen a bit hit-and-miss personally, especially in recent years a lot of the comedies bearing his name have been wearing a bit thin, to say the least, although I do think he has the potential to do something really special; I enjoyed him in Long Shot last year and found that when he leaned into the more serious side of his abilities, he was immensely watchable, and I was hoping that this would be the kind of material to bring more of that side out of Rogen.

The film follows Herschel Greenbaum a Jewish immigrant in the United States in 1919, who dreams of bigger things for his family in the future, in an unfortunate, and absurd, turn of events, Herschel finds himself preserved in pickle brine in the factory he works in and is awoken 100 years later, without having aged a day. He soon discovers his only living relative, Ben (also Rogen) and moves in with his great-grandson.

Putting aside the absurd pickle brine aspect of Herschel’s preservation for a second, as tough as it is to disassociate that from the story, there is potential for something really special in its concept. A man from a different world, a different century, discovering the future, and getting to see future generations of his family, there’s potential for good drama in that premise on principle, but this potential is mishandled as the film contrives to be just another Seth Rogen comedy.

There is a profound sense of disconnect between the audience and the leading character and his story. Just as we think we’re getting to know the character and empathise with him, we’re taken out of it by a jarring comedy moment that makes the tone of the film waver uncontrollably.

There are some really interesting themes to be explored here; how the world has changed, how different people cope with loss and all that is present, it just has to share screen-time with unnecessary comedic filler, often at the most inappropriate moment, and it feels like the screenwriters are trying to fit in as much of Seth Rogen’s usual fluff and nonsense, rather than make something fresh and exciting.

It’s one of those plots that leaves you feeling cold because nobody ever explains important things to each other, and you wonder how easily these contrived events could have been avoided, if only Ben had told Herschel certain things, like the fact that Cossack’s aren’t around anymore, then so much misfortune could have been avoided; but then there wouldn’t have been a narrative I suppose.

But therein lies the problem, the narrative would have been perfectly fine without all the side nonsense, had it just been a rumination on how much times have changed, and addressed the difficulties this man would face after being un-pickled one hundred years later, and how he copes with the loss of everything he’d ever know, there is a lot of material in that, especially when you factor in him building a relationship with his relative, who might as well be from a different planet, even if you wanted a slightly comedic tone, it could have been handled differently, and so much better.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh; I certainly softened towards the film as it wore on, even if it did test my patience as it wore on, making an hour-and-a-half film feel more like two hours, it’s perfectly fine for what it is, several leagues above some of Rogen’s other work, but I can’t help but feel there’s more in him, and either he hasn’t found the right material, or he can’t be bothered to challenge himself; either way, he’s built up his own ‘formula’ of comedy now, and once you build familiarity in comedy, it soon runs its course and turns sour.

I would comment on other aspects of the film, such as other characters or particular scenes, but to be honest, it’s pretty much exclusively Rogen throughout the film. There are no recurring characters, people just pop up and then disappear again, even the second-billed actor in the film (Sarah Snook, who plays Herschel’s wife) only has around 5-10 minutes of screen time, everything else about the film is white noise, without Rogen, the film ceases to exist.

This means that such things as plot and characters fall into the background in favour of more Seth, it’s a good job he carries the double performance well, otherwise, this film would be an even bigger mess. I can’t even think of any particularly memorable camera work or direction, it’s just there, perfectly serviceable but just background noise to the ongoing ‘Seth Rogen talks to himself’ drama, there’s nothing memorable about it, I only left the cinema two hours ago, and I can already barely remember any stand-out moments.

There are a few moments later on where the film threatens to take a left-turn into political commentary, a turn for which it was completely unprepared, and would have sent the film completely off-the-rails, and was, mercifully, brief. It would take braver men, and smarter brains than Seth Rogan to take on the mess that is the modern political landscape.

In conclusion, then, I still think Rogen is capable of much more, and you can even glimpse that potential in moments here, it’s just buried beneath the usual fluff and filler that make up the usual Seth Rogen vehicle, taking an incredibly interesting premise, and making it thoroughly forgettable.

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