The first major, narrative film to debut on HBO Max is an acquisition. Sony’s “An American Pickle” was originally set for a theatrical release. However, the studio decided to hand the distribution reigns over to Warner Bros. for an in-home, streaming premiere. This marks the second time this Summer (following “Greyhound”, which went to AppleTV+) that a 90-minute Sony movie goes from theaters to living rooms.
Seth Rogen fans who would’ve plunked-down $15 to see “An American Pickle” on the big screen definitely dodged a bullet. What makes this even more surprising is the fact that this movie features TWO Seth Rogens. For those who already have HBO Max it’s only a marginal waste of time.
“An American Pickle” is based on a short story by the film’s screenwriter, “SNL” veteran Simon Rich. It’s a fable, but the blending of fantasy and reality never comes together.
The time is 1919. Jewish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) is working at a Brooklyn, NY pickle factory. Moments before the factory is closed by the health department, Herschel accidentally falls into a large vat of pickles. The tub is sealed – with him inside – and the factory is shut down. 100 years later, two kids wander into the abandoned building, open up the tub and Voila! Out pops Herschel.
He’s an instant media and scientific sensation. Once released from the hospital, Herschel stays with his only living relative, great-grandson Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen). Scenes of Ben showing the fish-out-of-brine Herschel what 21st Century life is like are extremely ordinary, with few legitimate attempts at humor or drama.
Ben is an unsuccessful app developer, with no social life. At first he enjoys having Hershel around. But a series of events soon pit the two Greenbaums against each other. This rivalry adds much-needed energy to the film, though it’s often mean spirited. Unlike previous Rogen films, “Pickle” doesn’t pile on the vulgarity or sexual elements (it’s a middleweight PG-13). But it does go too far within the walls of this bizarre premise and depiction of the modern American lifestyle.
Rich’s screenplay tries to be funny, insightful and heartfelt (especially with its themes of religion and family). The balancing act is unsuccessful. Many directions the story takes are just plain silly. Scenes of the frustrated, millenial Greenbaum and the optimistic, hard-working Greenbuam talking to each other or themselves dominate “Pickle”. Practically all other characters/plot lines are treated in such over-the-top, ridiculous fashion that it’s hard to take any of it seriously.
“An American Pickle” is more mellow and hollow than most Seth Rogen efforts. He’s not a credited co-writer, but is an executive producer, along with longtime creative partner Evan Goldberg. Director Brandon Trost has been a cinematographer on many Rogen flicks. He borrows elements from some of the comic’s previous films, including “The Guilt Trip” and “Steve Jobs”. The digital work of having two Rogens in the same shot is seamless — but completely on par with the two Lindsay Lohans in 1998’s “The Parent Trap”. So I’m not sure how much credit the filmmakers deserve for that.
“An American Pickle” puts you in a pickle. Two Seth Rogens should be better than one. But when neither character is funny or interesting, you may be better off just leaving this jar unopened.
LCJ GRADE: C-
Running Time: 88 min.