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It's amazing and even kind of inspiring that An American Pickle features Seth Rogen playing both of the main roles, spending virtually all of the film's first half doing nothing but responding to a version of himself to be digitally inserted later, and this is by absolutely no means the big high concept that fuels the movie. It's not even the big high concept that fuel's Rogen's acting; while I won't go so far as to say I "forgot" that he was playing a dual role, the film never treats this as the thing we should find primarily interesting, or amusing.

That honor instead goes to Rogen's interpretation of one half of his role, as a Russian Jew from the 1910s named Herschel Greenbaum (at least, the film's internal chronology demands that we assume that the action picks up sometime between 1915 and 1920, though the historical facts of Jewish life in Russia in those years really doesn't square with what's depicted onscreen - it feels like it's depicting the early period of Russian Jewish immigration to the United States rather than almost the very end of that wave). The film's extended prologue is equal parts Fiddler on the Roof and Borat, dropping us into a vision of the Pale of Settlement that is deeply, enthusiastically mired in every cliché about illiterate, unhygienic Russian peasants you could imagine, narrate by Rogen through a thick Borscht Belt accent. If it is saved from being pure, mortifying stereotype - note that I say "if", though I admit that I found this to be the funniest part of the whole movie regardless - it is because of the obvious affection underpinning all of the shtick and silliness. And it is worth pointing out, in this regard, that both Rogen and screenwriter Simon Rich (adapting his own short story) are both of Russian Jewish descent, and all the broad comedy baked into Herschel is extremely warm and forgiving, as is the overall narrative thrust, that we should still love our ridiculous old relatives from the old country even when they're embarrassing us.

Anyway, the opening sequence is completely unlike the rest of An American Pickle in every way: the costumes, the choppy quickness of the editing, which focuses almost entirely on delivering punchlines, the voiceover, the presence of Sarah Snook in a punchy little role as Herschel's wife, the presence of just one Rogen. Somewhere in the combination of all those things, it's also where the movie is at its best, energetic and fast-moving and enthusiastic. This all comes to a stop, or at least slows down considerably, when Herschel falls into a vat of brine, which somehow preserves him perfectly for 100 years (the movie breezes by explaining this in a flawlessly-delivered line of voiceover that is, I think, maybe it's single best gag), at which point he is revived and left in the care of his only surviving descendant, an app developer named Ben Greenbaum, played by Rogen as a slightly more put-together and serious-minded version of his usual persona. From here, the film plays as a straightforward fish-out-of-water comedy, focusing much more on Herschel then on Ben, as the two men navigate an indescribably changed Brooklyn, and Herschel decides to get into the artisan pickle trade to prove that the old ways still have currency in a new age.

So far, so perfectly adequate; the jokes accruing to Herschel's difficulty adjusting to the modern world are all extraordinarily obvious, but Rogen's two performances bounce off each other with terrific rhythm, facilitated not just by the actor's careful modulation of how he speaks and moves as the two different men, but as well in Lisa Zeno Churgin's editing and first-time director Brandon Trost's careful management of space. And this is enough to make An American Pickle feel brighter and funnier than any description of its paint-by-numbers story and the musty obviousness of the gags could possibly suggest, at least initially.

Because then, what happens, is that the filmmakers start to follow the logic of the story along a fairly natural line of development, and An American Pickle starts to sag under so much miserable bloat that, even at just 88 minutes, it's unbearably long and stilted. For one thing, the film makes the surely inevitable but disastrous choice to split Rogen from himself: humiliated by Herschel and furious at the pickle stand's breakaway success, Ben (who has just had a project years in the making shut down cold, leaving him rudderless and possibly without a career) starts trying to sabotage his great-grandfather's existence in the 21st Century. The camaraderie between the two characters being the film's strongest element, it's the opposite of a surprise that it has a hard time surviving a long, long stretch when they're not ever onscreen together.

Worse still, the movie decides somewhere in here that it wants to have ideas in its head, and so the film starts to rack up a laundry list of hot topics to drag into the spotlight: media hype, draconian anti-immigrant laws, cancel culture, sexism, gentrification, Twitter. It's a bit of a scatter-gun approach, interested more in the quantity of "life in the Donald Trump era"reference points it can nail down than in doing anything in particular with those references, but it does manage to feel pretty damn smug about several of them, in the fashion of so many modern comedies that seem to think that simply identifying the names of social media websites is as good as having a joke with a funny punchline about those sites.

These two things combine to jam the brakes on the film pretty damn hard, and thus it is that the film just crawls through its endless middle section, spinning out more and more plot as a scaffold for its increasingly stupid jokes and blunt-witted social commentary. It's never entirely without merits as a character piece, thanks to Rogen's ebullience in the part(s), and Trost's career prior till now as a cinematographer means that he has a bit more of a sense of visuals than far too many modern comedy directors even pretend to have. Especially in its historical scenes, An American Pickle looks pretty good, with a slightly diffuse tinge to its lighting and a hint of excess warmth in the color grading that gives it just a little goose of nostalgia, without losing its sense of taking place in a physically real New York (played, to be fair, by Pittsburgh). Still, not lapsing all the way into abject shittiness isn't much of an achievement, and An American Pickle would need to start out a lot stronger to survive how incredibly boring it gets  in the middle there.