As director résumés go, “from the cinematographer of The Disaster Artist” is not going to get moved to the top of the pile. Though not without merit, that movie’s look was of a feature length Funny or Die video. Director of photography Brandon Trost’s first feature as a solo director (he made 2011’s The FP with his brother), An American Pickle, has the same feel–though perhaps Drunk History is a better comparison for its opening sequences set in 1919 Eastern Europe. It’s an aesthetic that says, “This is not a big budget movie but it’s still a corporate product.” Just like The Disaster Artist, though, An American Pickle‘s charms lie elsewhere.
Seth Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant who falls into a vat of brine at his job in a New York pickle plant and is perfectly preserved for a century. When he wakes up, he is introduced to his only living relative, great-grandson Ben Greenbaum, also played by Rogen. Ben is a lonely aspiring app developer, a difficult reality for hardworking family man Herschel to comprehend. And so the happiness of their time-traveling family reunion is short-lived.
Perhaps the most welcome surprise in An American Pickle is how little of the comedy comes from the expected and familiar avenue of a fish out of water. Sure, Herschel’s wonder at Ben’s SodaStream is almost adorably goofy. And the fact of Herschel’s preservation is amusing in the way of sketch comedy logic, where we go along with it because it’s funny and it’s also funny that we’re going along with it. But, like in the recently ended series The Good Place, the bulk of the humor stems from how ridiculously convoluted the things we care about and why we care about them have become. Instead of Herschel arguing with Siri or whatever a lazier comedy would do, he puzzles at the notion that someone would be concerned with whether or not the person who grew the produce they buy is a good person.
This massive shift in values is also where the drama comes from in An American Pickle. Herschel sees the unwed, childless, effete Ben as a self-centered, overgrown boy. But that judgment is also rooted in the profound emotional pain of a man who woke up one day to find that his wife and son and everyone else he ever knew is gone and not coming back. Rogen’s performance as Herschel is an impressively effective blend of his more absurd comedic instincts and his character work in movies like Steve Jobs.
That’s why it’s disappointing when so much of An American Pickle‘s middle section abandons its psychological and emotional threads in favor of societal point-making. Herschel being embraced by Williamsburg denizens for his antiquated fashion sense feels like a joke from a decade ago. At least when he joins Twitter and gets shunned for his outdated views, the screenplay by Simon Rich doesn’t become an anti-cancel culture scolding. On the contrary, the butt of the joke is how quickly people are distracted and move on to the next thing. Still, this section feels more like a dramatized stand-up act than a movie.
An American Pickle is more thematically potent and complex in its look at the American dream and the immigrant experience over generations. It decries the anti-humanist, cutthroat underbelly of the former while ultimately defending it as the origin story of so much of what’s great about the latter. This is a movie that believes in America and proves, once again, that Rogen’s appeal lies as much, if not more, in his sweetness as in his outrageousness.