The HBO Max film feels direct-to-video in the worst way.
There are actors who can pull off dual roles, and now we know Seth Rogen isn’t one of them. In An American Pickle, streaming Thursday on HBO Max, the comedy star plays Herschel Greenbaum, a ditchdigger from Eastern Europe circa 1919. Picture the best Borat impression you ever heard at a fraternity party. Now imagine it’s 14 years later, and the guy doing the impression still thinks his fake accent is hilarious.
Herschel flees the Cossacks to New York City, where a factory accident leaves him brining in a pickle vat for a century. He wakes up in present-day Williamsburg, land of kombucha, ethical kale chips, and so many different kinds of milk. Gags about Brooklyn food are also about a century old: Was the script in the pickle vat, too? Also, in the modern age, men look like women, and women look like men: What a premise for multiple jokes, apparently!
Pickle wants to be a fairy tale — or rather, wants to use the cover of fairy tale logic to avoid creating any sense of narrative coherence. So Herschel meets his lookalike great-grandson Ben, a fitted-sweater version of Rogen’s old Judd Apatow persona. Really, the resemblance is astonishing. Back in 2007’s Knocked Up, Ben Stone lived off payout money from a decade-earlier car accident while working for years on an unfinished website. In Pickle, Ben has spent half a decade developing a smartphone app while living off money his parents left him after they died… in a car accident!
Rogen’s a reactive performer who emerged from the cult of improvisation. He needs somebody to play off. The nature of a double performance requires more control and a sense memory I just don’t think he possesses. It doesn’t help that both characters are aggressively uninteresting. The elder Greenbaum has to be a holy fool, an unreconstructed monster from an un-woke-age, and an inspirational figure: A racist-sexist ancestor who’s also a monument to Immigrants Getting The Job Done. Whereas Ben’s a cheerful lonelyboy with a way-too-fancy apartment and a lot of dialogue that sounds like bad improv. In the span of a few minutes, Ben says e-scooters are “Pretty fun!”, Alexa is “Pretty cool!”, and his seltzer machine is “Pretty cool, actually!” Then he turns on his home stereo: “Pretty cool, huh?”
Some editing would’ve been pretty cool, too. Although, with an hour-and-a-half runtime and a prologue that lasts nine minutes, Pickle already feels hacked to the bone. It’s like watching a Saturday Night Live episode where none of the segments hit. You find yourself wondering: How bad were the sketches that didn’t make it past rehearsal? Writer Simon Rich actually comes from SNL, and Herschel comes off like a caricature designed for maybe a six-minute goof. (It’s actually adapted from Rich’s own 2013 story, which explains the stale hipster gags.)
You can almost spot the satire here. Herschel is a hardscrabble American dreamer who imagines his descendants will become magnificent tycoons — and a proud Jew gone refugee from anti-semitic bloodshed. Ben’s a laptop barfly who stopped practicing religion after his Jumanji-themed bar mitzvah. The disappointment runs both directions. People love Herschel until he starts offering any 1919 opinions about identity politics. When someone suggests he needs to get some interns, Herschel thinks that people who work for free are “slaves,” which sounds swell! For a job interview, he measures up prospective employees and demands to see their teeth, ho ho ho.
This material needs real edge, and Pickle briefly lights up in the moments when Ben and Herschel find themselves at odds. But the plot works overtime to convince you they’re both really very nice people. This is increasingly ludicrous as their activities edge into a full-blown political cartoon. There are protests, conservative mobs, social media cancellation. Rogen produced the movie, which may explain the curious vanity schmaltz that glows around both of his characters. The sentimentality, and outright spirituality, is as half-hearted as the indifferent dialogue. “I think it’s that pickle guy, from the news!” one bystander says. I know, I know, it’s a comedy, but even one-dimensional parody extras don’t say from the news anymore.
Is it okay to admit that I’m concerned about Rogen? He’s a busy producer, and has the kind of familiar celebrity persona that will continue lending itself to perpetual cameo appearances or voice acting roles. As a movie star, he’s been on autopilot for too long — maybe since he played Steve Wozniak in 2015’s Steve Jobs. That was the last time Rogen seemed challenged by his material, pushed beyond amiable self-awareness into frustration and betrayal. He was the best thing about that terrible movie — and I wonder if Jobs’ failure, coming so soon after The Interview’s North Korean cyber-incursion, sent him down a safer path.
Pickle wants to be another sharp-edged American tale, but it can’t even live up to The Interview’s explosive mania. The director, Brandon Trost, is a cinematographer making his directorial debut, and there is a cool shot of freeways thundering over a tiny forgotten cemetery. Things go south anytime humans have to speak. And there’s a palpably saccharine treatment of the main characters. Everyone played by Seth Rogen gets to secretly be a good, spiritual person. Meanwhile, a supporting cast of perpetual stick-figures say tweet-sounding one-liners about kelp ceviche, personal blogs, and “the most authentic artisanal pickler in Williamsburg.”
HBO Max picked up Pickle from Sony, nominally because the coronavirus scotched a planned release. I can’t believe this thing was ever going to be on the big screen, and frankly it can only play better at home. In a theater, the laughless silence would’ve been deafening. D