Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum in An American Pickle
Photo: HBO Max
One of the refrains of the American immigrant experience, repeated often enough that the words have acquired the flavorless toughness of over-chewed gum, is that our forebears came to this country in order to give their children a better life. Behind them was war, persecution, famine, or poverty, but also home, while in front of them was a theoretical promised land that in practice would turn out to have a tendency to renege. In exchange for struggle and sacrifice, their descendants could have opportunities they didn’t. They could become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs — or, as Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), who’s voyaged from a fictionally grim part of Eastern Europe to New York with his pregnant bride, Sarah (Sarah Snook), more bluntly puts it, their family will be “powerful, successful, the strongest in the land.”
Of course, their offspring are under no obligation to comply. One of the qualified liberties they enjoy is the freedom to be unexceptional — to, say, make a failed go at becoming a Twitch celebrity, or drift into vague corporate middle management, or fiddle indecisively for years on an app they insist on naming “Boop Bop.” That’s what Brooklynite Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen) has been toiling at when he finds himself miraculously united with his great-grandfather, courtesy of the powers of brine and magical realism (“The scientist explains, his logic is good, it satisfied everyone,” Herschel says in voice-over, while conveniently speaking over the details). In 1920, Herschel fell into a tub in a pickle factory, emerging perfectly preserved a century later. Ben, his only living relative, takes Herschel in and introduces him to modern wonders like owning as many as seven pairs of shoes. Still, Herschel can’t help but find the reality of Ben’s untethered, solitary life disappointing.
An American Pickle is a minimal doodle of a movie, directed by frequent Rogen collaborator Brandon Trost (going solo for the first time after making 2011’s The FP with his brother Jason) and adapted by Simon Rich from his own New Yorker short story. It was slated for theaters before the pandemic, which spurred Sony to sell it off to HBO Max, a decision that feels like a blessing for something so unapologetically slim in its scope and run time — effectively a two-man show in which both men are Rogen. Having to pony up for a ticket to An American Pickle would have almost certainly made it feel inadequate as a viewing experience, but with the lower barrier to entry of streaming, its modest pleasures are able to outweigh its minor miscalculations, and the fact that it occasionally plays like a prolonged sketch feels more forgivable. When it works, which it does most of all in its opening and closing acts, it’s because it manages to give a surprising emotional solidity to what’s otherwise a whimsical premise.
Ben has a roomy apartment, an Amazon Alexa, a seltzer machine, and not a lot else ever since his parents died in a car accident. His main passion is his app, which scans products and then offers up assessments of how morally sound the companies that make them are. Selling the project will hopefully make him money while allowing him to at least maintain an illusion of also doing good, and yet he’s reluctant to take that last step, fussing over details as though aware that without it to work on he’ll have nothing. Herschel, with his unswerving faith, his deep sense of connection to family, and his capacity to weather absurdist hardship, feels not just like a figure out of time but like a critique of the modern malaise that defines Ben’s existence, with its comfortable contourlessness. “You were raised Jew! Are you not still Jew?” Herschel demands, aghast, when he discovers that Ben doesn’t know the Mourner’s Kaddish, leading the other man to scuttle off while muttering darkly about the perils of organized religion and his Jumanji-themed bar mitzvah.
Herschel’s even more horrified to learn what’s happened to the cemetery plot he and Sarah saved up for back in the 20th century — enough that it begins to drive the last two Greenbaums apart, pitting Herschel’s tireless work ethic against Ben’s passive-aggression. As far as its comedy goes, An American Pickle lands somewhere between the mannered disconnect of Everything Is Illuminated and the time-travel high jinks of Sleeper. Around when Herschel starts up a DIY pickle business, the movie gets bogged down in glib jokes that feel either out of date (the Williamsburg hipsterati love his retro authenticity) or a little too timely (Herschel gets championed by a free-speech contingent after an ugly Twitter incident). Rogen is adept at delineating the sturdy, brusque Herschel from the tractable, resentful Ben, but the film starts to lose sense of the two as actual characters when it moves into the realms of the topical.
And yet, and yet, there’s something to An American Pickle, something melancholy and sweet that it finds its way back to, and it has to do with the eternal question of what we hold onto from the past, and what we discard. Herschel is an embodiment of Ben’s cultural heritage — resonant commonalities, alienating archaic views and all — and Ben is both his splitting image and is nothing like him. Things are relatively straightforward for Herschel, who set out only to have a family and make enough money to buy a future grave for himself. They’re complicated and ambivalent for Ben, who may not have to worry about marauding Cossacks, but who’s been fretting over the unsolvable problem of ethical consumption under capitalism. The relationship between the two men doesn’t pivot on anything as simple as reconciling their differences. Instead, the movie floats, it’s a divide that can only be made peace with — all part of trying to figure out what “a better life” actually means.