New comedy casts Seth Rogen as a Jewish immigrant and his great-grandson.
Seth Rogen speaks Yiddish in An American Pickle. He also says the Mourner’s Kaddish, performs a variation on a Barynya (traditional Jewish Russian folk dance) and sports a big, bushy Slavic beard, with heavy accent to match. As Herschel Greenbaum, a prideful, crass pickle entrepreneur who sails to America with his wife in 1920 to seek a better life, Rogen wonderfully embodies the bootstrapped mentality of the early Jewish immigrant generation.
It’s a clever trick to have Rogen, this unmistakably Jewish face of modern slacker comedy, summon up the spirit of our hardworking, tough-talking ancestors. (Doubly so as he recently angered many Jews with his own fiery comments about Israel.) But Pickle, now streaming on HBO Max, takes this vision even further by also having Rogen play Herschel’s great-grandson, Ben, in modern-day Brooklyn… and by having the two men meet, and clash, after a freak accident leaves Herschel perfectly preserved in brine for 100 years.
This wacky setup, which shockingly contains zero marijuana jokes, is based on a short story by the Jewish humor writer Simon Rich, who also wrote the screenplay. As high-concept comedy goes, it’s as salty and habit-forming as a jar of Herschel’s delicious pickles. (“I myself am pickle!” insists this newly de-brined Rip Van Winkle.)
Herschel and Ben, a computer programmer trying to develop his own smartphone app, at first bond over a love of seltzer water. Yet their relationship quickly deteriorates as the elder Greenbaum becomes horrified that the descendant he worked so hard to provide for proves weak-willed, lacks business savvy and isn’t a practicing Jew.
Ben, in turn, can’t stand Herschel’s penchant for “doing violence” (he resolves his disputes with old-timey fisticuffs) or outdated attitudes about the world. Soon the two are sabotaging each other. But in a new-world Brooklyn that embraces artisanal throwbacks, it seems Herschel may have the upper hand.
The era-inappropriate humor has a pungent aroma of The 2,000-Year-Old Man, give or take 1,860 years – but you may be surprised, in the film’s second half, to find that you have been moved by these two dillweeds. Spite tears the Greenbaums apart, but what ultimately brings them together is shared grief, and a realization that prayer, ritual and acts of charity can bind the generations. It turns out Judaism is the best preservative.
“An American Pickle” is streaming on HBO Max. Visit hbomax.com for more info.