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An American Pickle

by on August 6, 2020
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The new Seth Rogen vehicle, “An American Pickle,” which is now available for streaming on HBO Max, is the Jewiest movie that’s ever Jewed. It makes “Yentl” look like “Triumph of the Will” by comparison. This is exactly the sort of flick that the kid who geeked out over “Munich” in “Knocked Up” would have a hand in making now that he’s grown up a bit … and I found it utterly charming.

The movie opens 100 years ago in an Eastern European shtetl known as Schlupsk. It’s depicted transformatively in 4:3 aspect ratio. Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) works as a ditch digger in the community. He becomes enamored by a local woman named Sarah (Sarah Snook of “Succession”) and woos her by gifting gefilte fish. They share their dreams – she wants enough money to afford a funeral plot; he wants to try seltzer water. They eventually also share their lives, are married, have a son and move to the United States through Ellis Island to avoid Cossack invaders.

They settle in Brooklyn, NY where Herschel finds work clubbing rats in a pickle factory. One fateful day he falls into a vat of pickles, is accidentally sealed inside and brined for 100 years. The brine preserves him perfectly and he emerges in present-day Brooklyn (and 16:9 aspect ratio) not having aged a day. Herschel’s only surviving relative is his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), a loner who works as an app developer. There’s a culture clash between the two men as they navigate having a relationship with one another.

Rogen is very good in the movie pulling double duty. His Herschel sounds a bit like a bassier Borat and is prone to violence and speaking his unfiltered mind. Ben is the most buttoned-down character Rogen has played since playing second fiddle to Barbara Streisand (Yentl herself!) in 2012’s “The Guilt Trip.” Often when an actor plays two separate roles in a film it’s an exercise in ego … action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme have done it countless times. I don’t believe this is the case with Rogen. Most folks simply see him as the stoner dude with a goofy guffaw, but when given weightier and/or darker material (“Observe and Report,” “Funny People,” “50/50”) he’s proven himself an adept actor. He appears to be stretching heretofore unused performative muscles here.

“An American Pickle” is the solo feature directorial debut of Brandon Trost, a cinematographer who’s shot numerous Rogen comedies including “This Is the End,” “Neighbors,” “The Interview” and “The Night Before” and co-directed “The FP” (a cult comedy my dudes dig and I don’t) with his brother, Jason. It’s scribed by “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich, who adapted his short story, “Sell Out.”

The resulting product has a storybook quality to it. It’s far less rollicking and far more saccharine (but not cloyingly so) than most of Rogen’s output. No one’s smoking dope and there’s very little cursing. It’s PG-13 but could’ve and should’ve been PG.  It honestly feels like a combination between an edgier live action Pixar movie and the high concept comedies you would’ve seen in the ‘80s or early ‘90s … throw a Touchstone Pictures logo at the front of this thing, replace Rogen with Richard Dreyfuss and there you go!

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