“An American Pickle” (2020) and the existential horror of film journalism

In the world of criticism, something decent is worse than something terrible.


Seth Rogen has a heated conversation with Seth Rogen about seltzer water in “An American Pickle”. Image courtesy of IMDb.

Max Vetter, Entertainment Reporter

Every time I think of the new Seth Rogen vehicle, “An American Pickle”, I get more angry. I’ve drafted this article upwards of six times now, and each time, I’ve been more disappointed by whatever conclusion I’m coming to. “Doppelganger movies are boring”, “this movie is just fine”, “why can’t there just be better comedies”; each draft gets more and more pessimistic, which only gets me more irritated. What is there to say about “An American Pickle”? It’s a Seth Rogen movie. If you like Seth Rogen, you’ll probably like it! But if this movie is so inoffensive, then why is it catapulting me into an existential crisis? Seth, what have you done to me?!

“An American Pickle” is about Herschel Greenbaum, a man who’s been pickled (yes, in salt and vinegar) for 100 years, trying to connect with his grandson Ben Greenbaum, who’s an app developer. The only thing that makes the movie special is that Seth Rogen plays both Herschel and Ben, which seems like it could be impressive, but it means that Rogen isn’t able to use his signature improvisational skills. The movie goes in all the directions that you would expect a buddy comedy about a modern person and a person from 100 years ago would go. Herschel makes racist and sexist remarks, he doesn’t understand modern technology, and he speaks with a funny accent, but the movie doesn’t really do anything else with that. The movie can be funny, but it doesn’t have any real forward momentum to keep you invested, and it ties up all its loose ends far too quickly. 

So why does this movie confound me so? Because this isn’t the first time I’ve run into a movie just like this. When you write reviews for a website, you have to be able to draw people in. You need to have articles people want to not only read, but come back for more of. If I want you to come back and read more of my reviews, how do I do that? Theoretically, I could write 200 words about every new release under the sun, but you know as well as I do that you can’t do that with a TJ workload. So now I’m at an impasse. How do I get people coming back to my articles? Well, by writing about interesting movies, of course! 

Oh, but if it were so simple. I’d love to be able to write about all of the good classics in the world, but that’s unreasonable. This is a news website, afterall. I can’t just write about terrible movies because then I’d seem overly negative. I can’t just write about great movies because then I’d seem easy to please. So I have to write about a nice variety of classic and modern movies of newsworthy quality. But that’s the problem! New releases, especially in the realm of quality, are so rarely interesting. “Downhill” (2020) is a terrible movie, “Tigertail” (2020) is a boring movie, “Emma” (2020) is a perfectly fine movie. None of those garner attention, but that’s oftentimes all I get. 

Which leaves me with “An American Pickle”, a movie so painfully fine that I couldn’t possibly recommend it, but would never warn you against it either. After this, and so many other new releases, I felt nothing but the sinking feeling that I had just wasted an hour and a half of my day with no return on investments. “An American Pickle” is a perfectly inoffensive romp without anything particularly egregious or exemplary, a movie that you probably won’t ever think about ever again. And I hate it for that.