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Josh Reviews An American Pickle

November 2nd, 2020
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In HBO Max’s An American Pickle, Seth Rogen plays dual roles as Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum.  In 1919, Herschel and his wife Sarah leave the shtetl of Schlupsk (fleeing Russian Cossacks) and emigrate to the United States.  Herschel gets a menial job at a pickling factory, but unfortunately falls into a vat of pickles and winds up preserved until present day, when he awakens and meets his great-grandson Ben, a freelance app developer.  The film was written by Simon Rich, based on his 2013 short story “Sell Out”, and directed by Brandon Trost.

Seth Rogen is a delight playing Herschel and Ben.  Mr. Rogen is a talented comedic performer, but he’s also demonstrated that he can be a solid dramatic actor, and he does a terrific job here at creating these two very distinct characters.  Baked into the film’s premise is the fun inherent in seeing Mr. Rogen play against himself, and the simple sight gag of seeing Seth as 1919 Herschel sharing the screen with 2020 Ben is very funny.  Thankfully Mr. Rogen and the film dig a little deeper than that, and they allow us to get to know both men in a pleasingly substantial way.

I was at first concerned that Herschel would be treated as little more than a joke; a feature-length version of the great sight gag in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer, played by the very-secular Woody Allen, imagined himself as a bearded Orthodox Jew when surrounded by Annie Hall’s extremely NOT Jewish family.  Seeing Seth Rogen, a performer who has a similar reputation as a very secular Jew, decked out as the bearded Herschel, is indeed very funny.  But the film works because they made the important and critical choice not to treat Herschel as a joke.  (For the most part — I’ll get back to this in a moment.)  Yes, Herschel is wowed by modern life and technology in 2020, and yes, the film mines a lot of comedy out of, say, Herschel’s amazement at the existence of a seltzer-maker.  But we see that he adapts quickly, and that his 1900’s-era approach to life actually serves him quite well.  His determination and creativity enable him to able to find success in 2020 in a way that Ben is not!  That’s a smart way to go with the story — not to mock the out-of-time Herschel, but rather to use him to illuminate the ways in which Ben, a man of 2020, has gotten stuck.

I thought the first half of the film was terrific.  It was very funny and with a strong dramatic underpinning that drove me to invest in Herschel and Ben’s stories.  I thought the film lost some of its energy in the second half, when it felt to me that the filmmakers struggled somewhat with what to do with the great set-up they had created.  And while I joked to my wife early on that Mr. Rogen’s line-delivery as Herschel felt like a Jewish Borat, I didn’t like the plot “twist” late in the film in which Herschel started to get into trouble by spouting Borat-level offensive comments.  That seemed out of character for the kind man we’d been following to that point, even allowing that someone from 1919 would almost certainly not be very P.C. in 2020.  And it felt like a bit of a slap to me as an audience member, who had really been enjoying the Herschel character up until that point, only to have that enjoyment seemingly punished when Herschel started saying horrible things.

On the other hand, I was surprised and pleased by the way the film embraced the value of Jewish ritual and prayer.  As I noted above, Mr. Rogen’s public persona is that of a very secular Jew, without much connection to Jewish religious practice or to the State of Israel.  (As an example, his recent comments on Marc Maron’s podcast about not seeing the need for the existence of the Jewish State of Israel struck many, myself included, as an unfortunately limited viewpoint.)  And yet, to me, one of the sweetest and most interesting aspects of An American Pickle was the subplot of Ben’s learning to understand why Herschel feels it’s so important to pray at the graves of one’s lost loved ones.  Seeing Seth Rogen say the words of kaddish yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish), was very moving to me, and that moment was enhanced, for me, by everything that Mr. Rogen’s past work and persona brought with him to the role.

It’s easy to take this for granted in today’s day and age, so I want to highlight the extraordinary visual effects that allowed Seth Rogen to appear on-screen opposite himself for almost the entire movie.  The effects are 100% seamless.  There wasn’t a second of the film in which I doubted the complete reality of what I was watching.  My hat is off to the amazing work by what must have been a huge group of visual effects artists needed to pull this off.  Bravo.

An American Pickle isn’t a masterpiece, but I quite enjoyed it, and it’s worth checking out if you have HBO Max!

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