The central conceit of the new comedy “An American Pickle” is that an Eastern European pickle-factory worker played by Seth Rogen emerges from a vat of brine after being preserved for an entire century, and naturally, it makes national news when the dumbfounded man is foisted in front of reporters at a press conference.
One of the journalists remarks, “You don’t honestly expect us to buy that, do you?” The same could be asked about this entire project, the first original feature film released by the fledgling HBO Max streaming service, and one that is, suffice it to say, not a big dill, even with double the Rogen in dual roles. There are some scattered laughs but it’s not particularly funny, and “American Pickle” (★★ out of four; rated PG-13; streaming Thursday) is generally all over the place, aiming to be an abstract comedy about family and religion but losing its way trying to also poke fun at modern culture.
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Directed by first-timer (and frequent Rogen collaborator) Brandon Trost, the film opens in the fictional locale of Schlupsk in 1919 with bearded ditch digger Herschel Greenbaum, played by Rogen channeling a stoic cross between Borat and Yakov Smirnoff. Things are bleak in his country – the fact that his shovels constantly break doesn’t help – but he falls in love with Sarah (Sarah Snook), and they talk about their hopes and dreams of being “afford your own gravestone”-rich at their favorite bog. They get married, the town gets razed by Cossacks on their wedding day and the Greenbaums set sail for America.
Free of the Cossacks but called “filthy Jews” upon arrival – a plus overall, in Herschel’s book – the newlyweds make New York City home, and Herschel chases mice in a Brooklyn pickle factory. “It is not a dream job but I am grateful to prove my worth,” he says, though the rodents corner him and send him falling into a bunch of brine. Waking up 100 years later without aging a day, Herschel tracks down his only surviving relative, a freelance app developer named Ben (also Rogen, but clean-shaven and inhabiting his usual chuckling on-screen personality).
While they’re initially somewhat happy to know each other, Ben eschews religion and doesn’t seem big on family – two aspects of utmost importance for Herschel. They get into a fight, Herschel strikes out on his own and becomes a viral hit selling artisanal pickles (with dubious ingredients), and it leads to an abundance of unfortunate actions by both men.
“Pickle” writer Simon Rich’s adaptation of his New Yorker novella digs into cancel culture, gender roles and other political themes using Herschel’s early 20th-century naiveté. The satirical elements aren’t as successful, though they do lead to the film’s strongest work when Herschel and Ben really hash out their differences.
A whole movie could be made with Herschel as a fish out of water, though (rather unbelievably) he’s oddly not tripped out by modern technology. His biggest problem is present-day social sensibilities, and the dude lives for Ben’s seltzer machine. Thanks to some filmmaking wizardry, Ben and Herschel’s scenes together are seamless, with two Rogens making everything look right, especially dancing together to the doo-wop hit “Stay.”
There’s definitely a sweetness to Rogen’s roles working out their issues, but the rest of “Pickle” just leaves a sour taste.