This is not a virtuoso star turn. Rogen is not technically facile enough to turn Herschel into a “Wow, I can’t believe that was Seth Rogen” set of performances. He’s no Meryl Streep when it comes to accents, and he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis when it comes to transforming himself into a character from another century who has no access to his emotional interior and would have no reason to think he needed any.
But has a firm grasp on the idea of Herschel, the feeling, the fantasy, the longing that he represents. He gets this man. This man is the great, great grandfather of the Jewish American subconscious, with his cap and wool clothes and mud-stained boots and huge beard and fists that lay men out cold.
Rogen gets Ben, too, because Rogen is Ben with more money, and an entertainer’s instinct. Rogen makes Hollywood films and does voices for cartoons. He lives in a big house with a refrigerator, air conditioning, and a soft bed. He drives a horseless carriage. And he’s great on Twitter. The film might be the self-lacerating dream of a successful writer who looked at his life and wondered what his ancestors would think of it. When Rogen faces Rogen, the scenes are charged with self-loathing, but also an awareness of self-loathing as something rooted in culture and conditioning. At the same time, though, these scenes are suffused with respect for the multigenerational journey that transformed Herschel into Ben.
A similar mix of recrimination, pride, hero worship and self-mockery is present in Rich’s source material, “Sell Out.” Rich’s story doesn’t have any of the rise-and-fall stuff that pads out and diminishes “An American Pickle.” It’s confined to Herschel’s perspective and validates his withering view of modern life. The old world peasant describes his great-grandson’s dependence on high technology in these terms: “The computer is a magical box that provides endless pleasure for free … When the box stops working—or even just briefly slows down—[a man] becomes so enraged that he curses our God, the one who gave us life and brought us forth from Egypt.” His great-grandson confesses that he played 2 Live Crew at his bar mitzvah, hasn’t been to synagogue in years, and once pretended to be a Christian in college to get free barbecue.