‘An American Pickle’ is half-sour, still charming bite of Jewish magical realism
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Film reviewMore of a snack than a meal, but movie is packed with flavor

‘An American Pickle’ is half-sour, still charming bite of Jewish magical realism

Streaming on HBO Max, Seth Rogen’s new caper features a surprisingly powerful performance by the comedian/producer. And it was filmed in Pittsburgh.

NEW YORK — Let’s talk, for a moment, about pickles.

I don’t just mean a thin warm disc pressed atop a hamburger, and I don’t mean un petit cornichon that rolls off the side of a salad. Not one of those enormous cucumbers sloshing in a plastic pouch of weird green liquid, either. I mean a pickle. A pickle you don’t just taste, but you hear.

When you pull a gherkin brined in salt and vinegar and spices (I like black peppercorn) out of a barrel, take it home in a glass jar, then reach in deep past the knuckles, grab it, chomp into it, and it snaps, you know what to expect. A full sour sensation slowly cascades over you; an undertow pulling you back to the pungent troubles and tragedies of our ancestors.

“An American Pickle” — streaming August 6 on HBO Max — is a silly, slim movie produced by and starring Seth Rogen, written by Simon Rich and adapted from one of his short stories. (The director, Brandon Trost, is a cinematographer known for successful mid-budget movies, making his solo feature-length debut.)

At 82 minutes this is more of a snack than a meal, but it is packed with flavor. Despite a limited cast, a preposterous story and the worst “fake New York” in a while – it was filmed largely in Pittsburgh – it still has its charms as a magical realist Jewish fable.

We begin in The Old Country, the muddy Eastern European land of “Schlupsk,” where Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) digs ditches with broken tools and swoons for a woman (Sarah Snook) too broke to buy a smoked fish. These are people who suffer with a smile, and dream of a better future for their offspring.

They marry and, surviving a Cossack raid, come to America. Herschel takes a job chasing rats at a pickle factory, and one day he falls in a vat of brine, which preserves him in salty stasis for 100 years.

Rip Van Winklestein emerges in modern Brooklyn as a miracle of science, and the doctors trace down a man the same age as Herschel: his great-grandson Ben, also played by Seth Rogen.

Ben is a friendly, but somewhat introverted, would-be creator of socially conscious apps. He lives alone, his parents having died in an accident, thus leaving him enough money to remain gun shy about actually showing his ideas to investors. While Herschel is at first impressed with his distant offspring (he does, after all, own upwards of 25 pairs of socks) he quickly becomes disgusted by his prevaricating nature.

When Ben refuses to take action upon seeing the awful state of the Greenbaum family plots (the cemetery blocked by a Russian “Cossack” vodka billboard), the elder Greenbaum breaks away, and the pair begin a series of coyote-and-road-runner-style acts of one-upmanship.

I know it sounds crazy to say “and here’s where it gets far-fetched” about a movie based on surviving for a century in a pickle barrel, but when the tone shifts from fantasy to satire, it quickly goes downhill.

Scenes lampooning “Brooklyn blogger culture” are painfully tone-deaf. The jokes don’t land, are a tiny bit insulting, and don’t even understand how social media really works.

Luckily, anything that feels too phony can be explained away — this is a fable, remember, and not to be taken seriously. Also, at such a short running time, not many story beats last very long.

And to the film’s benefit, what does work is what occupies the spotlight most of the time: Seth Rogen, in a surprisingly good double performance.

Rogen, whom I have kvelled over in the past, has long established himself as one of our better comedic actors. While “An American Pickle” is hardly “Richard III,” there is more serious acting done here than in many of his typical slacker-stoner comedies.

As Herschel and Ben outfox one another in their ridiculous schemes, things ultimately climax at a synagogue in what I swear is a very touching and extremely Jewish moment of redemption. The younger Ben, extremely secular, finds if not a love for, then at least a personal connection to, the religion of his people in the ending scenes.

There’s some extra-cinematic significance to all this, considering the brouhaha that surrounded Rogen while promoting the film. Chances are this very juicy story of the moment will soon fade — unless I’m wrong, in which case it will grow into the ultimate example of internecine Jewish disagreement, studied in textbooks for years.

In case you’ve missed “The Rogen Affair,” it began when he appeared on a podcast with Jewish host Marc Maron and said that his Jewish education intentionally misdirected him about Israeli history. The two very funny men commenced jawing and joking in the brash style that usually works for them, but did so in a context-free way with such a sense of security that they forgot that people without their fuller understanding of Jewish history would be listening.

The far-left anti-Zionist blog Mondoweiss quickly printed a sensationalist headline, and soon Seth Rogen was being championed by the very eager (and disquietingly vast) hordes of Israel-haters ready to anoint Rogen as “one of the good ones.”

What I personally find so indisputably perfect about all this is that his mother soon swooped in behind the scenes to yell at him, and force him to speak with Isaac Herzog, head of The Jewish Agency. He’s a good son, he did what he was told, but he later admitted he only did it to make his mother happy, and he still stands by what he actually said.

These are serious topics and Hollywood stars do have a significant influence, but Seth Rogen’s mother (who is very funny on Twitter) grabbing her world famous son by the ear as the defender of the faith is something that really speaks to me.

And this cross-generational misunderstanding, at least I find, makes “An American Pickle” a little bit sweeter. PJC

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