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American Pickle is a better Seth Rogen drama than a Seth Rogen comedy

In a dual role, Rogen plays both genres, but his leading-man chops work better than his comic ones

Beardless Seth Rogen faces beardy Seth Rogen in a dual role in American Pickle Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO Max

Mention Seth Rogen, and most people will likely think of his distinctive laugh. Since his acting debut in the series Freaks and Geeks, Rogen has donned many hats as a writer, producer, and director, but he’s still best known as a comedian from his roles in movies like Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. His latest film, An American Pickle, makes the strongest case yet for reconsidering Rogen as a fully fledged dramatic actor. The film’s plot, adapted by Simon Rich from one of his short stories, is unfortunately saggy. But Rogen’s performance remains rock-solid throughout.

In fairness, this isn’t the first time Rogen has proven he has dramatic chops — his performances in Observe and Report, Knocked Up, and Steve Jobs are clear evidence. But apart from his role in Steve Jobs, his serious moments have been buried in comedies, and easily overlooked. An American Pickle, directed by Brandon Trost, is also a comedy, but it’s impossible to downplay Rogen’s talent in it because there are only two main characters in the film, and Rogen plays both of them.

In 1919, Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) falls into a vat of pickles and winds up preserved by the brine. A century later, he emerges to find the world completely changed. Luckily, researchers are able to locate his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen), a mobile-app developer, who takes Herschel under his wing as he learns to navigate the 21st century. The two Greenbaums start to clash as Herschel takes issue with Ben’s disinterest in religion and unwillingness to process his parents’ death in a car crash. Ben, in turn, finds Herschel’s outdated views and sudden success in the independent pickling business a thorn in his side as he struggles to sell the app he’s been working on for five years.

In a 1919 scene, Sarah Snook and Seth Rogen ride in a horse cart in American Pickle. Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO Max

The film is at its best when it’s focusing on family drama. Ben is forced to reckon with his family history, and the grief he’s been bottling up. The worries he obsesses over — what color to make his app’s logo, for instance — are comparatively petty, and Herschel helps put them into perspective by comparing Ben’s circumstances to Herschel’s previous life as a ditch-digger and rat-smasher. Meanwhile, he tries to reconcile Ben’s seeming tepidity with his long-ago wish that all future generations of his family would be strong and prosper.

The difference in perspective between them, while exaggerated and sometimes played for laughs (Herschel’s constant solution to problems is to “do violence” upon any supposed enemies), is ultimately handled tenderly. The scene where Ben is coaxed into participating in the Mourner’s Kaddish, though he protests that he doesn’t remember the words, is one of the movie’s most powerful sequences.

It’s also a perfect showcase for Rogen’s capabilities as an actor. He’s an endlessly watchable comedian because his features are so friendly, and his projected sincerity is exactly what makes him so effective in dramatic sequences as well. His emotions are immediately apparent, and more importantly, immediately accessible. He doesn’t come across as pretentious, or as if he’s winking at the audience. His vulnerability is what makes him such an appealing leading man — and romantic interest, as in Knocked Up and Long Shot.

Seth Rogen from 1919 scolds Seth Rogen from 2020 in HBO Max’s An American Pickle. Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO Max

That star quality mostly winds up on the back burner through An American Pickle’s middle section, as Herschel becomes a famous pickler while being praised for “telling it like it is” when he starts tweeting his 18th-century views. That subplot takes on Trumpian undertones, as it explores how quickly information can blow up on social media. It aims for immediate relevance, but the comedy feels flimsy in comparison to the drama of the timeless central family dynamic.

Luckily, Trost and Rich don’t spend too much time on that detour (An American Pickle clocks in at just under 90 minutes), and Rogen’s strong performances, differentiated mostly by his costume and accent, help tide the film over until it rights its course. Though there are other reasons to recommend it — a brief turn from Succession’s Sarah Snook as Herschel’s wife, a Jorma Taccone cameo — Rogen rightfully dominates the movie. It’s a testament to his acting abilities and his innate charm, and it’s an argument for putting him front and center more often.

An American Pickle is streaming on HBO Max now.