As the first HBO Max original film, An American Pickle seemingly sets the precedent for original feature programming on the growing streaming service. With Seth Rogen pulling double-duty at front of the screen, does the comedy pack the punch fans can typically expect from him? The answer needs time to brine (ok I’m done).
Played by Seth Rogen, the film follows Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant worker that was accidentally preserved for 100 years at a pickle factory and wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn. Also played by Rogen, Ben Greenbaum serves as the only remaining family member baring his last name. As both protagonists navigate the complexities of modern life, it’s clear the two have much to learn when it comes to family.
Despite sporting a comedic crew front and behind the camera, the film’s strengths rely heavily on the emotional backbone of the story. Although Rogen offers a solid performance as the two characters (with a great accent, by the way), the watered-down comedy and formulaic structure become the film’s weakest points. In the laugh department, the movie can shift from solid, timely humor to mediocre SNL skits. But An American Pickle finds its footing when it delves into the implications of a century-old man waking up in a much different world and meeting the only family he has left.
Jewish ancestry is perhaps the most vital and effective thematic element the narrative has to offer. As Herschel Greenbaum, Rogen channels the old-fashioned embodiment of the American dream, meanwhile, as his great-grandson Ben, he gets to portray the average millennial that isn’t exactly in tune with his religious side. With the latter, it’s clear that the actor is pulling from personal experience as the character begins to reconcile with his past and confront his heritage. Herschel’s journey and confrontation with a new reality is just as engaging, if not more interesting. It’s timely, effective, and by far one of the most compelling parts of the film.
Their dynamic is the primary focus of the film, which relies heavily on Rogen pulling off two compelling performances. He passes this with flying colors, even if the script can become inconsistent tonally and comedically. The 50/50 star continues to prove he’s no stranger to the dramatic elements of a script, delivering heartwarming and wholesome moments throughout the film. He is typically showing off his comedic chops in adult-rated fare but he does well enough under the confines of a PG-13 rating. This is perfectly fine because the subject matter of the film doesn’t necessarily need that R-rating, but it’s clear that this isn’t nearly close to his comedic potential. Beyond his performance, there’s one other aspect of this film that truly surprised me from beginning to end.
Cinematographer/director Brandon Trost delivers a stunning-looking comedy that separates itself from other flicks in the genre. The opening sequence, taking place a hundred years prior, is composed beautifully as the audience gets to fall for the Greenbaums in just the first few minutes. Afterwards, the film becomes a bit more visually conventional, but there’s no doubt the camerawork is special. Every shot is tight and purposeful without skipping a beat, however, I wish the same could be said for other certain parts of the film.
While An American Pickle attempts to ride a fine line between over-the-top parody and subtle, effective humor, the result is an inconsistent mishmash that doesn’t always work. As the film reaches deeper into Herschel’s experience in the modern world, the higher the antics become, and the more it loses its grounding. Although there are some on-point political/religious references, it’ll tend to delve into parody territory while the film is also trying to realize a bit of poignant commentary. It doesn’t help that, despite a strong appearance from Sarah Snook (Sarah Greenbaum), the supporting cast is made up of a string of familiar faces that play like an SNL skit.
Though it’s not my favorite of Rogen’s extensive catalog, it’s a solid debut film for HBO Max. It can be tonally messy but its thematically resonating narrative saves it from being just another genre flick. Seth Rogen carries much of the screen presence with enough differentiation between the two protagonists amidst the lack of a strong supporting cast. It’s a worthwhile watch at home that’ll fit nicely within the streamer’s original content library.
An American Pickle will be available on August 6 on HBO Max.
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