In the 21 years since Seth Rogen made his acting debut as one of the titular “freaks” on NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” he’s taken on many different titles: raunchy comedy lead, good-hearted man-child, blissed-out stoner, unwitting assassin, and even — for a brief moment — crime-fighting superhero. Yet, the role that seems to fit him the best is perhaps an unexpected one: wholesome, lovable, comfort-movie king.
Over the last decade, Rogen has put out film after film that, despite their raunchy R-ratings and humor, are deep down sweet odes to decidedly family-friendly themes like parenthood.
Over the last decade, Rogen has put out film after film that, despite their raunchy R-ratings and humor, are deep down sweet odes to decidedly family-friendly themes like parenthood (“The Guilt Trip”) or childhood innocence (“Good Boys”). And as the newest film “An American Pickle” proves, this version of the star might be exactly what the world needs.
Based on a 2013 short story by Simon Rich (who also wrote the script), “An American Pickle” features Rogen in a, shall we say, unconventional dual role: Herschel, an Ashkenazi Jew who immigrates to New York in the 1920s, and Ben, Herschel’s modern-day, computer programmer great-grandson. The plot is the kind of far-fetched goofiness seen in some of Rogen’s most famous works such as “Pineapple Express” and “The Interview;” Herschel falls into a vat of pickles at work, gets preserved in the brine for 100 years, and wakes up in Brooklyn to find a hugely changed world and a descendant whose life makes little sense to him.
But despite the time travel and copious pickle juice, at its core, “An American Pickle” is a film about family — the importance of it, the beauty of it, the unavoidable grief that comes with losing it. In other words, it’s far more concerned with making its viewers want to give their parents a call than bro-five their pals.
And the thing is, it works. The critical response to “An American Pickle” (now streaming on HBO Max) has been mixed, with positive reviews honing in on its successful mix of acuity and sweetness; as A.O. Scott wrote for The New York Times, the film’s central conflict between its protagonists is “played out in a way that feels both satirically sharp and oddly comforting.” It’s a tough balance for any movie to strike, but Rogen (with the help of Rich and director Brandon Trost) tries hard to make it work — just like he did with last year’s feel-good romance “Long Shot,” or 2018’s heartwarming teen romp “Blockers,” or 2012’s road-trip-with-mom comedy “The Guilt Trip.”
Over the years, whether as an actor, writer, producer or director, Rogen has perfected a specific kind of sweet, if not overly complicated, comedy. His movies are still very much adult — the sixth graders in “Good Boys” have mouths to rival Quentin Tarantino — but they’re far more mature than the characters in “Superbad” or the “40-Year-Old Virgin,” which defined his earlier work. And they’re filling a welcome niche, too. The vast majority of recent halfway-decent R-rated comedies have been violent thrillers, superhero capers, or sequels to “The Hangover,” so Rogen’s brand of sincerity is something of an anomaly.
Of course, his work isn’t for everyone; even his most wholesome movies still contain their fair share of inappropriate sight gags and cringeworthy humor.
Of course, his work isn’t for everyone; even his most wholesome movies still contain their fair share of inappropriate sight gags and cringeworthy humor. But judging by the box office returns of his films (“Good Boys” made $111 million worldwide and “Blockers” $94 million, just to give two recent examples), there are many, many of us who do find a lot to love about them.
Whether inadvertently or by design, Rogen has spent the last several years becoming the cinematic equivalent of grown-up comfort food, providing us with movies with mainstream adult language and humor that are far more hopeful than they might seem. Part of this comfort comes from the fact that Rogen, at 38, has grown up with his millennial audience; as we’ve moved on from high school humor and settled down with partners or kids, we’ve watched him, and his characters, do the same.
But his movies are also soothing because they are neither too real (hello, “Contagion”) or too silly. These days, with the world as scary and unpredictable as it is, my preferred entertainment is the type that distracts me from reality, yet isn’t so far-fetched or outrageous that I realize I’m being duped; that amuses me enough to break up the monotony of yet another night at home, but never becomes asinine or moralizing. And with so many of us in the same confusing, difficult quarantined boat, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
For those who still think of Rogen primarily as the immature, pot-smoking sidekick of Judd Apatow, his transformation might seem surprising. In actuality, though, Rogen’s movies, from "Knocked Up" to "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," have long centered on ideas such as family and togetherness — it’s just that lately, those messages haven’t aren’t hiding under quite as many layers of sight gags and dick jokes. And there’s something very appealing, especially right now, about the funny movies that choose to wear their goodness on their sleeves.