It’s hard not to pigeonhole Seth Rogen as a typecast comedic actor, especially when he’s made countless movies and millions of dollars playing a series of aloof stoner bros on screen.
Thick with phlegm and inhaled smoke, his iconic chuckle almost plays as a refrain in arguments defining his limitations as a performer.
Posters with his chubby smile slapped across the front signal raunchy comedy no matter the plotline and Rogen’s attempts at serious work – including 2015’s “Steve Jobs” or 2011’s “50/50” – give off a feeling of “He’s in that?”
So it’s no surprise that Rogen’s latest feature – “An American Pickle” for the HBO Max streaming service – is billed as a comedy, especially given the “Trading Places” and “Jack and Jill” nature of the film’s plot.
In the 90-minute feature, the Canadian actor plays both Jewish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson, Ben, who come together after Herschel is discovered in a pickle brine vat 100 years later having not aged a day.
Intentionally or not, this ridiculous premise is where the hilarity is supposed to ensue. Culture shock and generational gaps are supposed to put at odds the two loners who are eerily similar to one another.
But the humor just isn’t there.
At times, “Pickle” goes for a comedic tone with Herschel’s adapting to modern times as a fish out of water being played for laughs. But the core of the film is a surprising sensitivity that will pull on viewers’ heartstrings.
Because so many of the jokes don’t land particularly well, the more somber moments stand out, giving audiences a reflective look at Judaism through the lens of a devout blue-collar Jew and a secular, hipster Brooklynite Jew.
That Rogen is playing both simultaneously is most striking about “Pickle” as Herschel challenges Rogen to flex his acting muscles emotionally while Ben feels more like a sober version of Rogen himself. It certainly feels as if Rogen is trying harder to play Herschel despite the overly comic accent that evokes Sacha Baron Cohen’s controversial “Borat” character.
A good chunk of “Pickle” is devoted to the concept of grief, with Herschel openly mourning the loss of his wife and the son he never met and Ben passively locking away the memory of his parents. This discord drives the conflict between the two characters and creates some genuinely earned, heartfelt moments in an otherwise morally complicated film.
The remainder of the supporting cast is largely unmemorable and tertiary to the plot that many characters are barely offered enough dialogue to be given names, let alone characteristics beyond affluent gay couple or entrepreneurial, industrious college intern.
Filmmaker Brandon Trost – making his solo directorial debut – shows off what he is best at, striking and bold cinematography that envelopes the viewer in the storyline despite its ridiculous premise.
Early scenes set in the 1920s are shot in 4×3 black and white letterbox, framed to accentuate the cold despair of Eastern Europe and the hard life of American immigrants. Modern Brooklyn, meanwhile, is bright and poetic, sprawling in a cinematic 16×9 widescreen scope as is typical of how comedic films portray New York City.
Originally slated for a theatrical release through Sony Pictures, “An American Pickle” was sold to Warner Brothers for distribution through HBO Max in April, which was probably the best vehicle for the film regardless of the coronavirus pandemic.
Viewers who would be venturing out of their homes to a confined space and paying money might be upset with a “bait-and-switch” dramedy lacking in chuckles but should be more forgiving with a film that feels free despite requiring monthly subscription.
When viewed as a comedy, “An American Pickle” is an abject failure. Through the lens of a Jewish actor at conflict with himself, it’s interesting and engaging insight into the mind of a performer trying to find his true self.