What is the current state of theatrically-released comedies? Well, before the pandemic, they had been slowly declining in box office success for years, with the last big hit in the form of 21 Jump Street (unless I’m forgetting something). With the rise of Netflix rom-coms and other streaming successes, there may no longer be a place for them among the superheroes and Vin Diesels of cinema. Seth Rogen has long been a champion of theatrical comedy, but the pandemic has forced his hand, lending his latest effort, An American Pickle, the interesting distinction of HBO Max’s first original film. HBO Max is the confusingly named Time Warner streaming platform that you may or may not have if you have an HBO subscription. It’s worth figuring out, as it may be the only future home of these kinds of films.
Based on a New Yorker story from 2013, An American Pickle is the tale of Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a Jewish immigrant from 1920 who finds himself in modern-day Brooklyn after an unfortunate brining incident. The film glosses over the science of this quickly and pairs Herschel with his great-grandson Ben, also played by Rogen. I was shocked at the surprisingly emotional opening of this film, which focuses on Herschel mourning his lost wife Sarah (Sarah Snook, whom Succession fans will be disappointed to learn is only in the prologue) and the world he understood. I was further surprised by the fact that the film is essentially just Seth Rogen versus Seth Rogen. Sure, Jorma Taccone and Tim Robinson make brief appearances, but Rogen carries the film by himself handily.
The gag-heavy second act plays with outdated jokes about hipsters, interns, Twitter, and other things the first season of Broad City handled with better results. Part of this is the result of adapting the original Simon Rich story, but the jokes didn’t need to hibernate like our out-of-time lead. Fortunately, the film is barely 90 minutes, moving quickly from set piece to set piece. Again, I came away mostly impressed by Rogen’s ability to play against himself. Even if Ben is mostly a stick-in-the-mud character, Herschel is a lot of fun to watch sell “reclaimed” pickles on the street and speak with his Eastern European accent. The film’s melancholy felt jarring at first, but by the ending feels entirely earned.
I am always rooting for Seth Rogen, even when his movies don’t entirely work for me. He believes in comedy as a genre that feels rarer and rarer by the day. I want films like An American Pickle to exist and play the big screen, and Rogen is continually fighting for that. I’m not sure if Pickle would have done Superbad numbers (actually, it definitely would not have), but Rogen put a lot into it. Maybe more people will see it as an HBO Max original, if they can figure out how to log in.
An American Pickle
Dir. Brandon Trost
Streaming on HBO Max on 8/6
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.