Seth Rogen may have made a name for himself with his laid-back brotastic comedic style, but he’s proven to be versatile with his more dramatic roles in recent years. Now he has a chance to merge those two acts in American Pickle, where we see the actor play dual opposing roles. One, a struggling laborer who immigrates to 1920’s America, who is pickled for over 100 years. The other, his great-grandson, a mild-mannered computer coder. The premise itself may be a bit strange, and the concept of an actor playing two roles in one film isn’t entirely groundbreaking. But American Pickle is precisely the kind of material that gives the actor the chance to balance both the comedy and the drama.
American Pickle opens with Herschel (Rogen), the ditch digging laborer of the small Eastern European town of Schlupsk. It is a cold and dreary place that does not have much to offer in terms of luxury. Worse, it has a long-running streak of marauding Cossacks that do nothing but burn, murder and pillage the small town. And yet, Herschel, keeps on digging, literally. And he finds new motivation to dig even more when he woos Sara (Sarah Snook), who is strong and has all of her teeth, top, and bottom. And they find that they have a lot in common when it comes to color and those same marauding Cossacks killing their parents.
Eventually, they get married and immigrate to American to achieve their dreams, no matter how meager it is. Because Herschel is a man, who is devoted to ensuring that their family will prosper for the next 100 years, unfortunately, he will never get to see that when he is accidentally pickled for the same amount of time.
The entire process of his preservation is nothing short of a miracle, of which the audience never gets to hear but is accepted by the characters who do. Herschel believes that he is alone until one of the scientists finds the only surviving Greenbaum, his great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen). But what would be a joyous reunion turns out to be a step towards a bitter relationship that consists of a nasty rivalry, backstabbing, insults, and bigotry. All of these could have been prevented if these two took the time to understand how the generational gap feeds into this misunderstanding.
See, Herschel is a man of devout faith and believes that hard work is the most important quality of a man. But he is also a man of a forgotten age who has a short-sighted view on social issues involving religion and women’s rights. On the flip side, Ben is passive-aggressive and unwilling to take the final step in getting an app, that he has been working on for five years, into development. He is a man who lost both his family and his faith at an early age.
Their relationship deteriorates when Herschel asks Ben to take him to the cemetery where Sara and the rest of the Greenbaum family are laid to rest. But the elder Greenbaum is shocked to see that the condition of the neglected family plot. It is located under an overpass, and a decayed billboard casts a shadow over it. To make matters worse, a crew posts up a new brand of Vanilla flavored Vodka on the billboard. This act only makes Herschel angrier. And as he fights the crew, he inadvertently pulls Ben into it.
As a result of that fight, Ben has a criminal record, which forces the investors interested in his ethics app to pull back. Herschel believes that all will be right when he can buy the space for the billboard. But with no money left, Ben is justified in his anger towards Herschel. So the elder Greenbaum goes into the homemade pickle business. And he finds a solution buying the cucumbers he cannot afford by dumpster diving. And rather than using some large factory for the pickling process, Herschel uses mason jars and salt he also finds and dumpsters, then uses rainwater to speed up the process. It’s an instant success, but one that draws the ire of Ben.
Herschel goes on to create his own artisanal pickle success while at the same time violating a number of health code violations. This only frustrates Ben even more. It goes to a point where jealousy turns into petty vengeance. And no matter how many times Ben tries to undermine that success, Herschel perseveres.
Bens attempts to sabotage Herschel’s business may be justified but the way he goes about it is childish. And it can get a bit repetitive. However, it does highlight how much social media has an influence on what goes viral and what deserves to be a part of the cancel culture.
Despite that, the film makes great use of Rogen’s talents. Playing these opposing roles allows us to see how versatile Rogen is as an actor. While we have seen Rogen as the everyman, there is something about this character that proves he has a lot more going on than we actually see. And playing Herschel shows that he use that offensive humor to make a character endearing and human.
That’s because Herschel is a man out of time. He’s beliefs and opinions do not fit today’s sensibilities. He’s a man who hails from a different era and cannot comprehend the progressiveness of today’s world. That being said, his ignorance does resonate with those who have an old-fashioned way of thinking.
But the reality is that both Ben and Herschel are two polar opposite family members who understand what it means to lose someone very close to them. Both remind themselves that they need each other more than they admit. While it may seem obvious to the audience, it takes just a little bit of time for these characters to know it.
While it does occasionally skate on predictability, American Pickle succeeds in reminding the audience about appreciating the bonds they share with family, no matter how far the generational gap that separates them. If there is anything to take away from these, it’s to appreciate the simple things in life and that you can rely on faith when all hope is lost.
American Pickle hits HBO Max on August 6, 2020.
Photos courtesy of HBO and credited to Hopper Stone.