“An American Pickle,” the new Seth Rogen movie now streaming on Crave, begins as a fish-out-of-water—or perhaps it should be a pickle-out-of-brine—comedy but gradually settles into a heartfelt story about blood being thicker than pickle juice.
The first time we see Rogen he’s playing Herschel Greenbaum, a laborer living in the Eastern European country of Schlupsk. He’s a ditch digger, married to Sarah (Sarah Snook), who dreams of a better life, one that involves one day being able to afford drinking seltzer water. In 1919 he and Sarah immigrate to America, where he gets a job killing rats at a pickle factory.
One day on the job, while everyone is distracted by the Condemned signs being posted on the front door, he stumbles into a vat of pickles, is sealed up and preserved in brine for 100 years.
He re-emerges, unchanged, in present day Brooklyn. His closest living relative is his great grandson Benjamin (also played by Rogen), who is exactly the same age (minus the 100 years of brining) as Herschel was and is. “I can’t wait to show you the future,” Benjamin says.
Benjamin helps his great grandfather negotiate the new world—“Imagine, a Greenbaum with twenty-five pairs of socks,” Herschel marvels—but when Herschel’s old-world temperament blows a five-years-in-the-making business deal for Benjamin, the relationship becomes as sour as an old deli pickle.
Feeling the burn, Benjamin tries to sabotage his grandfather’s burgeoning pickle business but instead Herschel becomes an online sensation as a beacon of free speech.
“An American Pickle” is “Encino Man” with a heart. The oddball, one joke premise gets the action started but it’s just kindling for what comes later. Screenwriter Simon Rich (who wrote the short story “Sell Out” the movie is based on) weaves in comments on the internet age, cancel culture and assimilation, themes that enrich a story that could have relied on one-liners and time travel gags.
It’s uneven in tone, dragging in the middle section, but between the laughs there is an unexpected sense of poignancy. “The world has changed,” Herschel says. “Everything I know is gone. Everyone I knew.” The comedy is broad but the heart of the story, the sense of the importance of family, inner strength and the feeling of displacement immigrants often feel in a new land are all handled sensitively. Rogen, in the dual roles, brings both the laughs and tenderness.
“An American Pickle” works as a satire of modern life but works best when it wears its heart on its sleeve.