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'An American Pickle': Seth Rogen shines in dual role in this sweet, earnest fable

Sarah Snook as Sarah Greenbaum and Seth Rogen

Sarah Snook as Sarah Greenbaum and Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, a struggling laborer who immigrates to America in 1920 with dreams of building a better life for his beloved family in "An American Pickle" will premiere Thursday, August 6th on HBO Max. (2020) Credit: HBO MAX/Hopper Stone

PLOT An Eastern European immigrant to Brooklyn falls into a vat of pickle brine and reemerges 100 years later.

CAST Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jorma Taccone

LENGTH 1:28

RATED PG-13 (Some language and rude humor)

WHERE On HBO Max

BOTTOM LINE An entertaining fable that makes up for some weak plotting with a strong dual Seth Rogen performance.

The best compliment to be paid to "An American Pickle" is that it looks and feels like a classic Jewish fable, transported to present-day Brooklyn and replete with references to hipsters, ethical shopping and app development.

The filmmaker Brandon Trost, a cinematographer making his directorial debut, and screenwriter Simon Rich (who is adapting his short story "Sell Out") keep the movie sweet and earnest when it could be condescending, while simultaneously adding an edge to the generational conflict at its center.

There is a lot going on over the course of 88 minutes. While things are never fully fleshed out in any particular direction — sometimes the ideas and the satiric conceits fly so fast that the filmmakers barely have time to reckon with them — the overall concoction is an entertaining one.

That is largely thanks to Seth Rogen, who gets his chance to take on the classic dual role here, acting opposite himself. He's Herschel Greenbaum, a ditch digger in the mythical Eastern European country of Schlupsk, who comes to America with his wife Sarah (Sarah Snook), gets a job killing rats in a pickle factory and falls into a vat of brine, where he is perfectly preserved for 100 years.

A century later, this miracle of science emerges from the salty mix and is taken home by his great-grandson Ben (Rogen, again), the only surviving Greenbaum. Adjusting to this new reality with surprising ease, Herschel works to become a pickle magnate, much to the chagrin of the frustrated Ben, a developer of a long gestating app that seems to never get off the ground.

There is a lot of potential in this premise, and it is most fully realized in the depiction of the development of the pickle business. Herschel is, naturally, a big hit in aritsanal Brooklyn, propelled by social media and powered by the free labor provided by eager interns. You can see how someone who suddenly emerged on the street in 21st century Williamsburg might be able to exploit his "authenticity" to achieve insta-success.

When the screenplay starts to go in the direction of "Being There," building Herschel into a cultural sensation and a guru, making allusions to seeking "the biggest office in all of America," the picture becomes too vast in its ambitions and loses focus.

Rogen finds some real depth and pathos in this portrayal — it would of course be agonizingly painful to wake up one day and realize everyone you ever loved is dead  — but he mixes it with an unexpected reservoir of strength. If you can survive life as a ditch digger in the old country, fending off the Cossacks, before immigrating to America without a penny to your name, you're certainly capable of fending for yourself in the internet age.

It's hard for the lonely, struggling Ben to watch his time-traveling relative become such a success, and while occasionally his efforts to undermine Herschel seem forced, they are tied into a deep sense of inadequacy and disappointment that Rogen makes palpable.

We want little more, ultimately, than to make our parents and grandparents proud, for them to see that we have built better lives for ourselves. The agony of being unable to do that, and of losing touch with something essential about who you are in the process, lies at the center of this movie.

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