“An American Pickle” is a comedy that connects you to something so old world that it seems, at times, to be an artifact of prehistory. No, I’m not talking about Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a glumly bearded Orthodox Jewish ditch digger from 1919 who escapes the Cossacks by emigrating from Schlupsk (a fictional Eastern European country) to New York City, where he finds work in a pickle factory and ends up tumbling into a vat of briny cucumbers — only to wake up, 100 years later, like Rip Van Winkle crossed with Tevye. (Yes, the pickle juices preserved him.) There’s no denying that Herschel, with his peasant rags, his beady-eyed glower, and his Yiddish accent as thick as a knish, is a dusty relic of a character. But the age-old thing I’m referring to is that once-pivotal, now-faded form, the fish-out-of-water comedy.
You remember those! They were big in the 1980s, when they could be spry and witty and nearly classical in their cleverness (“Splash,” “Back to the Future”), but were more often obvious (“Mr. Mom,” “Coming to America”) or downright lumbering (“Kindergarten Cop”). Good or bad, they expressed something of the comic dislocation that people felt in a too-rapidly-changing world. All of which now sounds very last century.
In our era, there have been rare examples of good fish-out-of-water comedies, like the adorably daffy “Enchanted” (2007). Yet the genre has essentially faded, and “An American Pickle” is a textbook case of why. The film was produced by Rogen and his longtime collaborator, Evan Goldberg, but it was scripted by the former “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich (adapting his own short story) and directed by Brandon Trost, and what these two relative filmmaking novices have come up with is a comedy too contrived to be convincing and too formulaic to be funny. Instead, it occupies a “humane” but rinky-dink middle ground, as if someone had tried to make an Adam Sandler comedy by padding it out to a prefab version of three dimensions.
Rogen, in addition to playing Herschel, also portrays Herschel’s great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum, a freelance mobile app developer in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. As a character, Ben is a collection of dweebish millennial signifiers: He wears ugly hipster aviator frames, keeps his fridge stocked with kombucha and pea milk, and thinks he’s cool when he dances to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs singing “Stay.” (He gets Herschel to dance, too, and the latter’s “If I Were a Rich Man” moves are almost cooler.) For a while, “An American Pickle,” in vintage fish-out-of-water fashion, hangs on the strangeness of everything Herschel encounters — a scooter (“You have legs, you do not need this thing”), a taxi, a home seltzer machine, an iPad (“A magical rectangle!”), or the fact that Ben owns 25 pairs of socks and lives in an exposed-brick pad that looks, in shtetl terms, as big as a palace.
If Billy Crystal had played Herschel, he would have made him a lovable crank. Rogen goes in the opposite direction, turning Herschel into a purposefully charmless found object who greets everything, including his disappointing young relative, with a belligerent shrug.
Apart from Sarah Snook’s presence as Sarah, the woman Herschel woos and marries in the film’s 9-minute prologue, the only real characters in “An American Pickle” are Herschel and Ben. And that, frankly, is a lot of Seth Rogen for any one movie. The two visit the Brooklyn cemetery where Sarah is buried, only to learn that there’s now an elevated highway and an ugly billboard built right over it. And that’s when Herschel’s old-world intolerance boils over. He threatens the construction workers who are redoing the billboard (“You vill take down vanilla wodka, or I will do violence!”), and Ben, after spending the night in jail with him, learns that the venture-capitalist investment he’s about to get for his new app is dead in the water. The two relatives now turn into sworn enemies. And it’s at this point that “An American Pickle” begins to get pickled in its own silliness.
Who, in the end, is Herschel? He’s whatever the movie wants him to be. He fishes stuff out of the garbage, freegan-style, and makes his own pickles, which turns him into a local artisanal success story. Then he tweets out his thoughts about women, gays, and the disabled and reveals that he’s enough of a creature of the 19th century to become a right-wing hero and a left-wing scourge. Then he’s a Chauncey Gardiner for the age of cancel culture. Then he insults Christianity and earns the enmity of both left and right. Then he’s Ben’s buddy again.
Of course, the essence of the fish-out-of-water comedy is that it’s never been a realistic genre — it’s pure Hollywood fantasy. Yet “An American Pickle,” in its ethnically satirical and scattered way, lacks the integrity of its own ridiculousness. It’s pungent but flavorless: an unkosher dill.