I would never call Seth Rogen a particularly introspective filmmaker or comedian. His output has been particularly low brow, broad and on the nose. He traffics mostly in jokes about drugs and atheism and doesn’t have much to say beyond the most surface level understanding of these topics.
That’s not to say his films don’t come close to being interesting. This is the End works because it riffs the personas of immoral and libertine celebrities and makes them (sort of) come to terms with their negative features. Knocked Up and Neighbors both put his self destructive persona in a negative light. The Interview almost even manages to say something profound about media culpability in modern politics by riffing on the idiocy of celebrity culture and how easy it is to manipulate.
What I’m trying to say is that his movies work best when they’re pushing against his personality somewhat. The more his films reward his cosmopolitan, leftist, pot smoking and atheist tendencies, the less interesting they are to watch. Thus why a film like Sausage Party feels more indulgent than honest.
In that regard, his newest film An American Pickle almost comes close to saying some interesting things about Jewish cultural identity, immigration and modern American pop culture and politics.
The story has a simply premise. We meet Herschel Greenbaum, an early 19th century Jewish immigrant to United States, who accidentally falls in a barrel of pickles and gets preserved till the year 2020. There he meets his great grandson Ben Greenbaum. Ben is everything you’d expect from a stereotypical secular Jewish man living in Brooklyn. He’s an app developer living a hipster cosmopolitan lifestyle and has largely forsaken his heritage in most respects. He’s uncomfortable with religion and he’s largely disinterested in his heritage.
As a story, this actually sets up a potentially interesting conflict for these two characters. Herschel, a practicing Orthodox Jew, and Ben, an Atheist, are the last surviving members of their family but they’re living lives that are complete opposites of each other’s values and beliefs. There’s a budding story idea here about learning to come to terms with your heritage and live a more fulfilling life.
What ends up happening instead is a goofy comedy wherein the elderly Herschel bumbles his way through modern day New York by selling artisan pickles to hipsters, becoming a populist debater advocating traditional gender roles and becoming a viral sensation (unintentionally). All throughout this, Ben is jealous of his success and finds ways to expose his archaic prejudices to the public to get him in trouble.
A story like this feels like it needs more intimate character drama and conflict. Ben is jealous of Hershel but only because he’s accidentally successful. Maybe this should’ve been a story wherein the old timey Hershel offers lost wisdom and life advice to a young lost man who is struggling to get his life off the ground. We could have a scene where Hershel gets him a date and then spies on them and accidentally embarrasses Ben.
Such a story though would have to revolve around deeper character drama rooted in these characters personalities. For the most part, the script only gives them individual character traits: Herschel is bumbling and slightly bigoted while Ben is bumbling but slightly awkward and is jealous of other peoples success. Beyond that, the script has no deeper criticism to offer of its characters.
I like the film’s ending that shows Ben coming to a greater sense of comfort with his cultural identity but it doesn’t take the idea very far. It’s a shame that all of the ideas that the movie alludes to get lost in the films story. The drama of these two characters working out their incompatibility gets lost in its anti-populist political commentary and light hearted jabs at Brooklynite cosmopolitanism.
Alas, I don’t think modern Hollywood is comfort, at this moment, of acknowledging that tradition and heritage have much to offer modern life. They think tradition and populism create nothing but Donald Trumps and domestic terrorists…
Such a story might also involve having to question your own lifestyle as a rich secular screenwriter…