I know top billing for the new HBO Max film An American Pickle goes to star Seth Rogen, who plays dual roles as a 30-something app developer and his 30-something great-grandfather (I'll explain how that comes to be in a bit), but the more appropriate name to know to get a feel for An American Pickle is Simon Rich, whose short story the movie is based on (Rich also wrote the screenplay). Rich, whose delightfully deranged TV resumé includes FX's Man Seeking Woman and TBS's Miracle Workers, wrangles stories from his wild imagination and stitches them together with the simplicities of our shared human existence. Man Seeking Woman, for example, was a treatise on dating featuring penis monsters and a sizzurp-slurpin' Cupid, but it always found a way to say something thoughtful and true about romance.
An American Pickle follows a similar winding path to emotional sensitivity, this time covering the importance of family via an Eastern European immigrant who is preserved in pickle brine for 100 years and wakes up in hipster central, aka Brooklyn, to tutor his great grandson on the meaning of hard work (and the type of petty revenge that can only manifest from the broken back of a ditchdigger from the early 1900s). In the extended opening, shot effectively in a grainy, classic 4:3 aspect ratio, we meet Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen), a simple man who takes pride in his labor and eventually falls in love with Sarah (Succession's Sarah Snook). They move to America and she gets preggers, but he never meets his son because he plummets into a tomb of salty cucumber water while on a gig smashing rats with a club at a Brooklyn pickle factory.
When he gets out of his pickle and is finally exhumed from his bad dill, it's 2020 and he meets his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen, with less beard and fewer items of brown clothing). Whereas Herschel had dreams for his successors to be successful, Ben is in his fifth year of hammering away at an app that assigns eco scores to products based on how ethical they are. Needless to say, after a few moments in which he's impressed by Ben's Sodastream, Herschel comes to think of Ben as a bit of a loser and sets out on his own to start a pickle empire, aided by Brooklynites approving of his vintage clothes, unkempt beard, and homestyle pickling process.
Though they are the same age (ignoring the 100 years of stasis), Herschel and Ben's connection is more disappointed father and lazy son than peers or great-grandfather and great-grandson, forcing tension to send their rollercoaster relationship on a deep dip in the long second act that produces moments in which An American Pickle barely hangs on to the rails, for better and worse. (Rich hits highs when he's daring and pushing absurdity, but the flip side of that is it's a high-wire act that doesn't always work, and that's true here.) However, the movie is best when Herschel and Ben are learning to understand each other and Rich can show off the script's sentimentality, which is most of the first and third acts. It's an entirely enjoyable film that mixes oddities, laughs, and critical thinking (hipsters and the media get it pretty good from Rich), but it's likely to be a film that you mention in passing to your friends rather than at the top of your conversation.
Rogen is solid in both parts, a perpetual snarl or look of surprise on Herschel's face as he emotes at the strange world in front of him and a self-satisfied stoned look as the unexceptional millennial Ben, and director Brandon Trost is most creative in the opening. With so much Rogen on screen, there isn't room for many others to shine, but it's worth noting that I Think You Should Leave's Tim Robinson does his very funny thing in a short cameo.
An American Pickle sours in moments, but mostly has a nice snap. But rather than taking it in with a sandwich, its odd premise goes down a lot better with Rogen's favorite vegetable.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
An American Pickle is now on HBO Max.