The premise for An American Pickle immediately catches your attention: "An immigrant worker at a pickle factory is accidentally preserved for 100 years and wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn." That's a movie you're going to want to watch, even if just to see how it justifies itself (also, Seth Rogen). This HBO Max movie banks on its elevator pitch, but after the novelty is gone, it's difficult to find a reason to keep watching.
An American Pickle is the ultimate vehicle for Seth Rogen. Playing both immigrant Rip Van Winkle character Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson (and stereotypical millennial) Ben, Rogen pulls a full Parent Trap. While he's an excellent actor and pulls off the split-screen illusions well, it feels like too much of a good thing.
The second-billed actor is Sarah Snook, who plays Sarah, Herschel's wife, but she's only in the first scene. Aside from that, it's just Rogen/Rogen scenes, plus some welcome cameos from beloved comedians like Tim Robinson and Jorma Taccone. But American Pickle is very much a two-character story, as Herschel and Ben try to achieve success with different goals: for Herschel, it's to buy the cemetery where his late wife is buried; for Ben, it's to sell an app to make his dead parents proud.
American Pickle is based on a short story, "Sell Out," by Simon Rich (the showrunner for Miracle Workers on TBS). In adapting the story for the screen, Rich has cut much of the fat from the story, including whole characters, and left the bare bones of a conflict between Herschel and Ben.
I've always thought more short stories should be adapted for the screen, but sometimes they are given too much time. In the '50s and '60s, multiple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone were adapted from short stories, a medium that lent itself well due to the already economic storytelling not needing much translating to a half-hour format.
An American Pickle feels like the perfect candidate for a new Twilight Zone episode more than an entire movie. It's got a great, funny premise, and just enough plot to fill the new runtime of an hour. It could even serve as a backdoor pilot. But as a movie, it just feels like it's growing into itself.
There are still things to be enjoyed. American Pickle is gorgeously shot, with the scenes set in the past color graded to look like an old film reel. When transitioning to the present day, the aspect ratio changes, as well as the colors, but there's still a veneer of sepia tone as if to remind the viewer the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The plot also takes a number of turns to satirize modern culture to hilarious ends. Herschel's 100-year-old opinions get him far when it comes to being economical and recycling his "artisan" pickle jars, but he doesn't quite get the hang of Twitter. Meanwhile, Ben, his great-grandson, is trying to sell his app to a venture capitalist, but gets called lazy by Herschel, turning the doppelgängers against each other.
There's a good amount of heart to this story too. Family values and a sense of legacy run deep in the storytelling, and the burden of making something of yourself to honor your family is a major motivator for both Herschel and Ben, even if their different approaches fuel the main conflict.
There's no hard or fast line with something like this. Is it a great movie? No. Would it have made a good TV show? Hard to be sure. As a TV movie, however, it does a perfectly decent job of turning its 90-minute runtime into an enjoyable experience. It's just difficult not to imagine what could've been.
An American Pickle premieres on HBO Max August 6.