S1: I want to tell you my secret now, I see.
S2: Charlotte Braiders Fabo. What’s in the box you. You’re blowing up to you.
S3: Hello and welcome to another Slate spoiler special podcast. Today, we’re talking about the new Seth Rogen vehicle and American Pikul, which just came out on HBO, Max, this week. Joining me to talk about the pickle guy is Isaac Butler, who is a writer, a theater director and the co-host of Slate’s working podcast. I would also add that you’re in the midst of writing a book about the history of the method, correct? That’s true. Yep. This may come up in my questions to you, because we’re talking about a dual role, and I think that’s a great place to to bring up acting questions. Yeah, totally. So, yes, very happy to have you on the spoiler.
S4: It’s such a pleasure to be on Slate’s spoiler special.
S3: Have you done one before ever? I don’t think you have with me.
S4: I haven’t. When I got the email saying, Do you want to be on Slate’s Foiler special look? Finally, they have asked, no, I’ve I’ve always wanted to be on it. And it’s very exciting to be talking to you about this movie.
S3: If they could see you now, Isaac doing spoiler. So as always, I like to start out by just kind of asking your general thumbs up, thumbs down reaction to the movie. So whatever we say next is sort of colored by knowing whether you cared for it or not, did you?
S5: Oh, yeah, I really, really enjoyed it. You know, I’m watching it by myself as a screener with my headphones on the laptop, which is not always the most conducive environment to comedy. But I laughed my head off. I really enjoyed it. I think it falters a little bit at the end, which I’m looking forward to talking about with you. But no, I was really pleased with it and surprised in some of the directions that it went. What about you?
S3: Yeah, yeah. To my surprise, I mean, I was actually ready to start off with the defensive tone, thinking there’s so much to pick apart about this movie. I mean, not really troubling things, but if anything, almost the lack of troubling things. And we can get to that. I mean, it’s just it’s so gentle and mildly amusing sort of thing. And I can see all of the plot holes, all of the sort of thematic threads that get dropped. But maybe it’s just my basic quarantine bitch self. This movie just just did what I needed it to do. It made me laugh. It has Seth Rogen. We’ll get to that. But I’ve had kind of a crush on Seth Rogen since, like Freaks and Geeks days. I love Seth Rogen and I especially do love him when he has a role that isn’t just his typical Apatow comedy role of, you know, the slovenly guy. And he plays two roles that are very different from that here, which we’ll get into. So it gave me my cute Seth and it gave me some laughs and the Jewish stuff in it. I thought as a as my co-host on this culture gabfest, Julie Turner said, I think it was our last recording. I sort of consider myself psychically Jewish. That was her phrase. And we’re both married to Jewish guys, kind of steeped in that world, you know, bringing up our kids sort of halfway in that world. And I feel like if there was a lot of really inauthentic Judaism going on in this movie, I would have sensed it. Even though I am agoI. I didn’t feel that happening. We’ll get into that, too, with you. And you are a man of the Jewish faith.
S5: Yes, yeah, yeah.
S3: I mean, I’m a secular Jew, so, you know, I’m not a Seth Rogen character, right? Yeah. I mean, culturally, you can speak somewhat to that. Sure. Tone of the movie. I hope so. So we both go in saying that we liked it, but have things to say. Do you want to help me set up the story?
S4: Sure. So the movie is really about Hershel Greenbaum, who is living in the shtetl of Shlubs in 1917 with aspirations of great things. He’s a ditch digger and he and his wife moved to America to try to make a better life for themselves and raise their eventual child to be a big, great man in America. And instead of that happening, he falls into a vat of pickle brine, which perfectly preserves him for a hundred years. He instead wakes up in the late teens in America to discover his only living descendant is Ben Greenbaum, and both men are played by Seth Rogen. And soon they become roommates and actually very quickly antagonists to one another.
S3: Yeah, it is kind of how they get to that point, right? I mean, there’s a lot of bonding that has to happen very fast so that we can introduce some conflict into this movie. Yeah, I have nothing to add to that excellent setup except because I think it has something to do with the work ethic that he has later on. The reason that he falls into the pickle brine is because he has this absolutely terrible job at a pickle factory. Yeah, it’s consists of waiting around with a mallet until a rat appears and then attempting to pound it to death and getting a nickel for every ten.
S4: He gets a nickel for every ten rather than the rats ganging up on him to get their revenge and kind of push him into the pickle that I found that whole set up so brisk and just really beautifully done.
S3: The tone was really hard to strike. Right, because you’re actually talking about pogroms and Cossacks invading his village and killing everyone, apparently in the village except him and his wife. So it’s some pretty dark humor at the beginning, but it manages to keep the tone, not mocking of the situation. But somehow light and brisk, and that’s that’s that’s a good tone for the whole movie, I think.
S4: Yeah, it reminded me a lot of two things the credit sequence of raising Arizona, which is maybe the greatest, you know, plot summation opening of any movie. Right, where we’re just getting through an enormous amount of information about their courtship very quickly. And the tone is set very clearly, but also reminds me as lots of things about the movie did of the 70s parodic period of Woody Allen’s work. Right. And I think that, you know, regardless of the, shall we say, personal issues with Woody Allen, et cetera and so forth, his writing and his filmmaking during the 70s is, I think, incredibly influential on the film, particularly in its opening act.
S3: Yeah, a very loving death kind of feeling right in the courtship. The one thing I would say about the beginning, and I guess it’s only my psychic Jewishness that allows me to say this, but Sarah Snook cast is his wife. And I mean, she’s funny. I love Sarah Snook shiv from succession, but she just feels to to go into modern. And I just couldn’t stop thinking of funny Jewish actresses that could have been cast in that role with Benny Feldman being the first that popped to mind.
S4: Yeah, I mean, there’s a number of different people who could have done it. I don’t know if HBO has like a warehouse where they store the HBO players. And so they just went there and they got serious enough out of it. I love Sarah. I mean, the role is also very small. You see, Sarah snuck in that movie just like later on. You see Jorma Taccone from Lonely Island in the film and you expect them to have a larger role. But actually, one of the things that that’s really going on in this movie is it’s basically a two hander. It’s just Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen and almost everyone else in it has maybe four lines in the whole thing.
S3: Yeah, I mean, I guess we might as well get into right now whether we think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s true that this could almost be done on stage as a two man show, right? Yeah. And that is interesting in that it asks a lot of Seth Rogen and I think he really rises to it. And I want to talk later about how he differentiates those two characters and how well I think he does. But there’s a real thinness to the world that the modern Seth Rogan lives in. I mean, when Personal Greenbaum wakes up, we know quite a bit about the kind of the threads that connected him to his world. Right. Of course, his world was much smaller and the little shtetl and fictional Klipsch. But we don’t know anything about Ben Greenbelts World. I mean, he doesn’t seem to have any friends. He doesn’t seem to have even an ex-girlfriend. We learn as the movie goes along that his parents have both died at the same time and that he’s still in mourning for them and kind of in denial about it, which I guess would describe why he’s lonely and lives alone. But it’s very context, free kind of the world that he lives in. And maybe that’s done for the kind of narrative flexibility and just allowing the two men or the two versions of the same man to spend a lot of time in rooms together. But there was something that was a little unconvincing to me about just the universe that was established for Ben Greenbaum to live in.
S4: Yes, the universe, which, among other things, is substituting Pittsburgh for Brooklyn. Right. You know, so there’s like a lot of different levels in which they’ve sort of condensed everything and thinned it out. Part of me was so grateful that the film was under 90 minutes as opposed to longer run times and sloppier constructions of Apatow movies that I was willing to forgive how much shorthand was in it. And I also think that there’s enough little throwaway in the first half of the film about the trauma of losing the parents that Ben Greenbaum has essentially done nothing in five years. Every time Hershel asks him, when’s the last time you did something? It was five years ago. And they panned to the gravestones of the parents at one point. You see that? Sure enough, they died five years ago, that I just had the feeling that he was living in this complete state of Stacie’s, that he really didn’t have any friends, that he hadn’t had a girlfriend in a long time, that he was just sitting there in his apartment obsessively working over this app that, you know, the end of the film reveals is named after his nickname for his dead parents.
S3: It’s narratively consistent, but it just makes that character very hard to know. And he’s also a very different character from that sort of Apatow Rogen type. He’s really buttoned up. You know, I notice his apartment is very clean. You know, he sort of has everything fastidiously in place, his huge apartment.
S4: I mean, he got he got a healthy bequest from his parents, which actually I was happy that the movie eventually raises that he has some, you know, inheritance that he’s actually been living off of this entire time that’s starting to run out. I appreciated just a little bit of realism and acknowledgement over the life that he has in Brooklyn would be an incredibly expensive one to maintain.
S3: Yeah, no, you actually see his parents give him the check, right, when he goes in and watches that old video on his computer. So it does do something rare in a in a comedy and acknowledge the existence of a real estate prices.
S4: Yeah, exactly.
S3: I wanted to say a couple words about the transition. This was kind of a had me at hello moment for this movie, which was the moment when he transitions, when Hershel gets out of his pickle brine and enters the world. And there’s that scene with the scientists. There’s a press. Explaining how how this this shtetl Jew has been resuscitated after a century and pickle brine, I guess, again, this is a little bit Woody Allen is essentially parodying. Right, the high concept science premise. But just that moment where I think you don’t even hear what the scientist says, an explanation. Right? You just hear the voice over. Yeah. Of Herschel as the scientist is sort of pointing to some graphs on a chart. And then we cut to the audience of of journalists at the press conferences, all nodding and stroking their chins like he makes complete sense.
S4: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. That was such a great moment of establishing the tone of the film and given how much plot there is to get through and actually how absurd the story gets. And the story gets far more absurd than I was expecting establishing right off the bat. We’re just going to throw you lots of big implausible stuff and everyone in the world of the movie is just going to accept it and you have to accept it to was a really, really smart move at that moment.
S3: You realize this movie is aware of its own lumpiness. It doesn’t care about its own Lupita’s. It’s not going to try to be some sort of science thriller or something like that. You know, it’s not going to make it sort of like as shocking as it would actually be to the world if anyone was resuscitated for any reason, pickle brine or. No, it’s just very, very casual about it. And in fact, it seems like only moments after that press conference, Herschelle is released into the care of his great grandson. Right. I mean, nobody seems to be following him after that. It’s not there’s no follow up stories being reported about the pickle brine miracle.
S4: Yeah. Yeah. He punches the scientist in the face and a little bit after that, he meets his great grandson.
S3: How do we get to the point so quickly that the two of them are beefing? They do have a brief period of of being really happy to meet each other and get to know each other, but it falls apart over. Is it because of the lack of respect for the dead that Ben Greenbaum is showing?
S5: Well, it’s two things. First, from Hershel’s point of view, you know, Ben is a bad Jew, right? He’s a bad Jew, both religiously. He doesn’t know the prayers, but also he’s a bad Jew culturally, and that he doesn’t have the kind of shtetl immigrant values that Herschell has the stand in for. That is whether he’s willing to honor the dead in the way Hershel feels they have to be honored. But the actual proximate thing, the causes, the falling out, is that Hershel gets them both arrested, attacking a group of workers who are putting up a billboard for what he thinks is Kossak vodka overlooking a Jewish cemetery. And the obscenity of that moves him to start a brawl, which then gets the men arrested, which then creates a global criminal record for Ben, which means that his venture capitalist friend will not buy his app. But Bob, where you scan items and it tells you how ethically produced they are.
S3: So he’s been working on his app for five years. His great grandfather comes along and ruins it. They fight about that. And then very quickly, I mean, within the first 20 minutes of the movie or so, Hershel Greenbaum is out on the streets, which you have to say is is pretty harsh once again, if you start thinking it through too hard. I mean, he would really lose all of your all of your affection for Ben as a character because he throws this completely helpless and penniless man out onto the streets.
S4: Right. But Seth Rogen is so charming. Are you going to question it at Seth Rogen? You can’t you can’t be mad at Seth Rogen who could stay mad at Seth Rogen? Well, Seth Rogen can stay mad at Seth Rogen, which is what turns out to be the the plot engine of the rest of the movie.
S6: All right. So after Ben throws Hershel out and Hershel is in the streets penniless, we get this great montage. This is a part of the movie that I really enjoyed this this entrepreneurial pull yourself up by your bootstraps moment for Herschel, where he goes from having nothing, literally nothing, and not even seeming to understand the concept of twenty first century economy to being the successful Picart. And the beginning of that montage really kind of goes back to when we saw him pounding rats to death in a factory. In the prologue, he’s just with the sheer brawn of his back and his stick to Atavist, he starts digging through dumpsters to find ingredients so that he can make his very first batch of pickles. And a touch that I loved here is that he has to wait for it to rain in order to make his brine, because all he has a salt and pickles, but no access to water. So there’s this very funny scene where he’s got open jars catching rainwater and he’s sort of thanking this guy.
S4: It’s a it’s a callback to Shawshank, isn’t it? Isn’t that aren’t they recreating the shot from The Shawshank Redemption when it rains? I think they’re.
S6: Oh, yeah, you’re right. That kind of great shot of him.
S4: Yes. And the jars are filthy. And, you know, you really feel it’s unfortunate when the people are eating the pickles, you know, one of one person tries and it’s like it stinks or something. And I was like, yes, he’s very pungent. The kind of Herschell brings his old world ingenuity to solving this problem, but then also solves it in a way that won’t work because. He doesn’t understand the world he’s in is quite wonderfully, delightfully laid out in that sequence.
S6: There’s also a nice piece of satire, something that I feel like it’s hard to satirize because it’s so overdone in the satire is so toothless, which is just a hipster trend, food culture and a kind of obsession with authenticity. So the fact that all of these I think in Williamsburg at that point, you actually see a sign. So he’s right in the midst of hipster trend world and he’s feeding people garbage pickles and they’re loving every minute.
S4: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you do have to believe that his garbage pickles are probably delicious like that.
S6: People said this is definitely leaves you. It leaves you wanting a pickle. There’s no question about that. We haven’t really talked about the actual food stuff yet that this movie is about. But don’t you leave it just wanting a sort of extra sour crunchy?
S4: I wanted all kinds of pickles because as Seth Rogen points out there, pickle and everything. Now you’re going to pickled strawberries, pickled watermelon rind, although pickled watermelon. Right. Is actually a very old thing. I could go for a jar of Gardenhire Pickles right now and just eat through the whole thing. But yeah, the speed with which this movie moves through what you think is going to be the premise over and over and over again, like you think, oh, this movie is going to be about them as roommates in a kind of odd couple way. It’s like actually seven minutes later or whatever. Hershel’s on the street. Right? And then you’re like, oh, you think it’s going to be about his rise as a pickle baron? It’s like, well, actually, 15 minutes after that, it moves on to something else. So there’s a way in which it’s racing through a lot of ideas really fast, which I actually found kind of invigorating.
S3: One of the words I have in my notes upon watching it was lumpy, which you would not usually think is a big compliment for a film. But this movie’s lumpiness I found sort of charming and appropriately Pikul like I guess this would be food. It’s a first time film for the director. He’s nuts. Directed a solo film before. His name is Brandon Trost, and he’s exactly Seth Rogan’s age. Thirty eight. And it didn’t feel to me like, you know, here’s a major new comedy director on the scene, but it did feel like someone who understood the movie he was making understood its tone and was able to maintain that tone throughout. As you say, a lot of unlikely and kind of rapid plot twists. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the writer of the screenplay, Simon Rich, who I think developed it really closely with Rogen, I mean, I think Rogen was a producer and was a big part of establishing this tone, even if he didn’t write the screenplay himself is a guy who formerly wrote for Pixar and they were talking about Pixar movies, apparently during the development stages and inspiration, the way that a Pixar movie will start off with a completely, you know, impossible, whimsical, high concept kind of premise and yet emotionally involved the viewer, you know, that it has this combination of silly impossibility and kind of emotional authenticity. And I think that is something that this movie hits that I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be able to hit.
S4: Yes. Although it also does go to much darker places, obviously. I mean, it’s a movie for adults, but it could have been just purely spin.
S3: I think their whole point was, though, that Pixar movies do things like, sure, almost incinerate the main characters in Toy Story three, et cetera, et cetera. Yes, please. I didn’t mean to interrupt.
S4: No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s a great point. So the thing that I was thinking of and maybe I just really want to pick your brain about this, because I’m curious what you thought of it, Dana, was the fifteen minutes in which it’s like they’re riff on being there, right where Herschel becomes a political superstar because of our council culture debate. And I was just very interested in what you thought about that moment when it suddenly becomes a political satire, because that was actually the biggest surprise for me in the whole movie, was that it veered in that direction for a bit.
S3: I had being there also in my notes for that section. This is also sort of what I mean about it being a lumpy movie, is that there is this entire lump that’s about that. And then that sort of forgotten. In fact, there are all kinds of opportunities for political satire that the movie deliberately turns away from. But that is one moment that it picks up that ball. Once again, I think it’s Rogen that sells it. I mean, somehow Rogen can actually, especially as Herschell, who I think is a better developed and maybe better played character than Ben Greenbaum. But when he’s playing Herschell, I feel like he’s enough of a of a confused peasant from 1918 that I can actually believe that he appears on what seems to be a version of the Charlie Rose Show. Right. And is mistaken for being this figure of wisdom because he simply says, I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand what’s happening. Again, the satire doesn’t go super deep in this part. Right. I mean, all we’re really sort of learning is that there’s a shallow media culture that is looking for easy heroes and it picks up Herschell as the hero and later villain of a few moments. But Rogen is funny enough and charming enough and fish out of water enough that I thought the part was kind of funny.
S4: I kept getting fooled by. It’s what you’re calling it’s lumpiness, right? I kept getting being like, oh, the rest of the movie’s going to be this. And then it turns out not to be that over and over and over again. Right. And there is a version of this story where it stays in that political satire for longer. And Herschelle becomes a kind of Jordan Peterson, guru of the intellectual dark web or whatever. I was very excited for that, but then very quickly, it moves away to the whole thing of the deportation and Ben helping Herschelle escape and they’re again having a falling out and Ben getting deported bubble of what it moves very quickly to the plot. And I feel like almost every time it’s about to get deep into something, it very quickly moves away to Zainy hijinx. But I also enjoyed the zany hijinx, so it’s hard for me to fault him for that.
S3: I guess a place that I wish that it had gone more, either a satire or as one of the genuine themes of the movie was labor. And why I wanted to mention specifically earlier that the way he died in the pickle brine is that he had this horrific job at a sweatshop is that I thought one of the things he would bring to the future, you know, it’s sort of like he brings things from the past to Ben and Ben brings things from the present or his future back to him. And one of the things I thought he could have brought from the past is this intimate knowledge of how awful labor conditions were 100 years ago. Right. And maybe not an idealistic desire to change them, because Herschelle is not an idealistic guy. He’s very earthy. Right. He’s very focused on the moment and just the struggle. But it could have been something that he almost unconsciously brought, like, yes, this is how we work. Of course, we pound the rats with the mallet. The only time that comes up at all is when he he hires the unpaid intern for his part. And and there is a little bit of a joke about, you know, him essentially treating the applicants for this unpaid internship like cattle. I love the moment when he just pokes the woman like she’s giving her her resume, standing up on a picnic table, and he’s just sort of poking her with a stick to see if she’s strong.
S4: She has a four point two GPA as a rising senior at NYU or something like that. He has a stick and he’s poking her calves.
S3: But that was pretty much it. I mean, there’s a little bit of a joke about him hiring that intern and kind of, you know, wearing her out. And then she’s ideologically horrified by him and he starts to, you know, be inadvertently kind of right wing in his utterances. But there’s not really a sense that he’s bringing that knowledge to Ben and that that’s going to change the way Ben works when the whole boot up app that he’s creating is about finding out whether businesses are ethical or not. So that seemed like it could have thematically married with, you know, the knowledge that his great grandfather brought him in a way that the movie didn’t take advantage of.
S4: Yeah, well, I think there’s a lot of parts of the Jewish experience that the movie does not take advantage of. And one of them is certainly Jewish ethics, the Jewish labor movement. You know, none of that stuff is really particularly present, although I think it does inform the kind of jokes about labor conditions that the movie is making. It does not inform the characters and how they are thinking. And then, of course, like the other thing about the Jewish experience that the movie doesn’t want to talk about at all is, of course, the major intervening thing that has happened between 1917 and now, or the two major things which are, you know, the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel. Right. Which Herschell for some reason never encounters either of those pieces of information. And obviously, the reason is if he encountered those pieces of information, it would likely destroy the movie. But it’s very weird to watch a movie in which, you know, its arc is eventually going to be about old world Judaism, a new world, secular Judaism becoming reconciled in some way. It’s very difficult to see a movie that’s about that that is leaving out like. All the major points of history in between the two things, you know, there’s other stuff within that as well, like about assimilation and about integration into white society that Herschell in nineteen eighteen in the United States has a very different relationship to whiteness than Benwood. In twenty twenty. You know, I mean I mean, there’s all sorts of different things that are just sort of leaves out. And so it’s difficult for me anyway. As much as I enjoyed the movie and I want to say I actually thought the movie was quite delightful. You do have to, at least for me, turn off the part of your brain. That’s like, well, these can only be reconciled because they’re not talking about any of the shit that happened between these two time periods.
S3: I don’t even know whether to say that that is an omission. I mean, obviously, it’s a huge omission, but is it a sin of omission on the movie’s part or not? Rogan just had an interview with Marc Maron where I haven’t listened to it yet, but he said some controversial things about Israel. I mean, controversial in the sense that, you know, he was somewhat, I think, cavalier about the sort of comic notion of dismissing, you know, what were we doing there in the first place. Right. Got roundly criticized for that. But maybe he was afraid to bring that up because of the third rail that it constitutes.
S4: Totally. I mean, and then that thing with mayor and what he’s really mocking is the way Israel is taught to Jews within their education system. Right. That the way Jews are taught about Israel is nonsensical and full of lies. And I mean, he’s largely right about that. You know, of course, he did it in a comic hyperbolic way that was destined to get him in some trouble. But, yeah, I mean, I don’t know how you do a light hearted romp like this and handle things like the Holocaust within it. There’s no way this movie could actually deal with the Holocaust. Right. Like, I actually don’t know how you would do that. So I completely understand why they skipped over it. But it’s one of the many reasons why it’s kind of inevitable. Reconciliation between the two of them at the end of the movie struck me as quite hollow and rushed. It’s almost like, you know, that it’s going there. The film knows that it’s going there. Everyone knows that’s what the ending is going to be. And so the last ten minutes happened in this very brisk shorthand. Right. That short changes everything about how these characters actually could be on some level reconciled.
S3: It would obviously be setting the bar very high. Right. Comedy plus holocaust like that is already raises the difficulty level just so high. But the fact that the end and the resolution of what brings the two men together finally is grief and that we really know all along it’s going to be grief. Right, because we know that they both have these losses that they’re dealing with. Yeah, that’s a pretty that’s a pretty huge piece of Jewish grief to leave out of the picture. If you’re going to have, you know, as you say, an old world, you and a new world, you grieving together. And we don’t even ever hear about those six million other Jews that they’re grieving.
S4: Yes, absolutely. And there’s this extremely heavy handed and sentimental moment where Ben Greenbaum now lost in the village of Sloops, which he has no connection to, and he doesn’t speak the land because they switched identities. Yes. Yes. What happens is Herschell comes to Ben asking Ben to take him out of the country and he said, you know, then you never have to see me again, take me to Canada because I don’t want to go back to schleps. They get close to the Canadian border and they’re bonding, although we don’t see the bonding. It happens on the way. We just assume it happens on the way. And Ben confesses to Hershel all the ways in which he’s screwed over Herschel’s attempt to become the pickle baron of the United States. And Hershel knocks him unconscious and steals his identity. He runs from Icer. I guess it’s the Border Patrol or whatever. And then he has Ben’s backpack with him and he suddenly has the idea to shave off his beard and steal Ben’s identity. And then Ben, in a court case scene that echoes the scientist press conference because it’s equally nonsensical and everyone just accepts that Ben’s defense, that he is in fact, himself completely falls apart at trial and he is deported to to schleps, which is then help Ben get get reconciled.
S3: I just have to say that I love the way that the prosecuting attorney makes that argument, is that he just holds a fake beard in front of the face and says, am I a different guy now?
S4: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So all that said, you know, once he’s in what was the shtetl of shlubs skin is now a really crappy industrial town of Klipsch. He is asking for help because he doesn’t speak the language. And someone, of course, points him to a synagogue. You know, it’s almost like a Frank Capra moment or something. It’s so heavy handed and sentimental. And then he goes to the synagogue and he begins to say the mourners Kaddish. And that’s where he’s sort of the old world in the new world. Reconcile with one another.
S3: Isaac, I’m going to stop you because we’re approaching the end of the movie, we have a few more moments to talk about in the film itself, but we still haven’t really talked about the dual role and the acting challenge posed to Seth Rogen and how he deals with it. And because you’re specifically writing a book on acting, you’ve directed many actors. You’re somebody who I think I love to hear about process and technique in acting from you. So I just want to ask you, how do you think he handles this dual role? What were you thinking as you watched him acting against himself, which, by the way, he didn’t initially want to do? Really resisted that idea. And they had some sort of table read with another actor. And he was eventually convinced by the writer and director that he could do it. I think it’s one of the great pleasures of this movie to watch him acting against himself. But I’m wondering, how did that strike you?
S4: The movie completely wouldn’t work if it wasn’t Seth Rogen acting against himself. I think it’s just the core of what the movie is as a project is getting to see him play both of these parts. And I don’t think it’s just a challenge for him. I think it dictates the entire visual vocabulary of the movie and is one of the reasons why there’s so few other lines spoken by anyone other than him in it. So, you know, when you watch all the other conversations in the film, they’re all edited and shot the way his conversations with himself are, so that it all just feels like one visual vocabulary. It’s usually one actor speaking directly into the camera and then it cuts to another actor speaking directly into the camera, for example. I thought it was delightful, right?
S5: I mean, I thought that it was really, really successful. I think a lot of it has to do with the dialect work that he does as Herschell, the kind of thick Yiddish accent that he has. And I think a lot of it is also due to the costumes. I think you really can’t underrate how important the costumes are. So you mentioned that Seth Rogan’s character, Ben, is really buttoned up. He’s literally buttoned up. Right. His his top collar is always buttoned. He wears this hoodie that seems weirdly both baggy and restrictive at the same time, you know, he just his movements are super limited within what he’s wearing in his clothes. And then Hershel is always in his kind of Tavia the dairyman outfit. Right. And we should probably talk about Fiddler on the Roof at some point. I feel like because this movie feels like it wouldn’t exist without Fiddler on the Roof. But, you know, he’s in this kind of shtetl uniform that he’s never out of. And I think that creates a really different physicality between the two. One has glasses, one doesn’t all that stuff. Externally, there’s this immediate difference. One is speaking in a different voice than the other. And they both have these really different physicalities. And that allows Seth Rogen to do what he does and have it immediately filtered in these two different directions. And so I thought it was really successful. And what I was most impressed by, frankly, is when they’re in dialogue with each other, you actually totally by there, in dialogue with each other, their user stand in sometimes to shoot coverage. When Ben is listening to Hershel or the other way around, it really feels like they’re listening to and reacting to their scene partner. Their scene partner just happens to be themselves. So for me, a lot of it was kind of like, you know, when I saw the Irishman with the aging and for about five minutes I was like, oh, that’s really weird. And then I just my brain immediately adjusted to it and I bought it and went with it. What about you, Dana?
S6: Definitely happened with the Irishman, with me too. And people who said that it bothered them the whole time. I just I just didn’t get it. I was really impressed by that technique and how well it worked. It didn’t seem like anything to me at all in this movie. Yeah. I mean, not only did I think that he pulled off the challenge of playing two characters who appeared, as you say, to be in the same room and to be really listening to each other, he must have had a good scene partner. They were just throwing in a lighting stand-in or something like that. He was really acting opposite someone, obviously, technically. I mean, now we’re so used to technical wonders that split screen is not a big deal. But I just it made me think about when I was a kid and I would do something with split screen like the Patty Duke Show. I never watched that as a kid. It wasn’t on where I was. But a parent trap. Parent trap. Exactly like I was just thinking of Hayley Mills face and not able to remember the title of that movie, which I’ve seen dozens of times. But, you know, I just know we’re looking for the line, you know, the little sort of moving line that you would see in between the two halves of the screen. And I would always be fascinated by this idea that it was taken with screen masking or whatever it was. Two different things at the same time in this movie, obviously no line to worry about, but there could easily have been a sense of uncanny Ernest, right, with the technical problem solved. And that never really happened. But also I sort of felt like I was I learned about Seth Rogen as an actor and his capacity as an actor from watching this movie. And he hasn’t done accent work to this degree that I can think of. Right. As you said, keeping up a dialect for the entire movie. He seems very comfortable in that dialect. It may be sort of a Hollywood ised version of an Eastern European Jewish accent, but he holds do it extremely well, including in all the voiceover for the entire movie. But as you said, he also just creates two completely different. Realities for these two characters and the stuff I was saying up top about Ben being sort of unknowable and enigmatic, I mean that I feel like he’s a little bit underwritten as a character, honestly, and I like her show. I’d rather spend time with him on screen.
S5: Well, Hershel’s also the protagonist, I think. I mean, he has the opening narration. He has the biggest arc. I expected it to be a movie that was mostly about Ben, but I think it turns out to be mostly about him.
S7: Yeah, I would I would agree. Hershel is the main character and and we should know him a little bit better. And as much as I might like for Ben to have a bit more coloration in his writing and his background, Seth Rogen is really good at both roles and he distinguishes them at some of the time. Sometimes when the two of them would be together walking down a street together or sitting at a table, I would sort of do my own masking in my head. Just look at only one half of the screen. And his body was just communicating something completely different for each character. They sat differently. They move differently. You get a sense of who Hershel is from the way he moves and who he is is someone very specific. I think Hershel was a really fascinating character because he could easily have been only that Peter Sellers and being their figure that you talk about someone who is just kind of blank befuddlement at the fact that his time traveled in this way, or he could be some sort of warm, I don’t know, grandpa type, although it’s interesting that he is the exact same age as his great grandson. So that brings in this interesting time travel thing where he is a great grandfather, but he is not particularly great grandfatherly. In fact, he’s never experienced even being a father. Right. So he’s this whole complex group of things. He’s kind of a family man, but he also is a very angry man, as we see in some of the scenes where he and Ben start to go after each other. Right. There’s a part of him that is deeply disappointed in his great grandson and wants to not just challenge him to be the best he can be or something sort of kindly like that, but really wants to beat him at his own game and that for that long segment of the movie when they’re competitors with each other.
S5: Yeah, totally. And, you know, neither character also and I think this is this is pretty important for why I found Rogan so impressive in it is neither character actually fits the typical Seth Rogen type, right? Neither of them are slovenly. Neither of them are a slacker. You know, they’re actually both quite ambitious. Neither of them are stoners, you know what I mean? It’s all the stuff that we sort of expect him to play that he often plays in films, that he writes for himself in the movies that he creates with Evan Goldberg. Now, obviously, he and Goldberg must have had a lot of input into the movie. They’re both producers of it. And I think we tend to forget how much work big stars do to shape the material that they themselves are in, you know, so it’s not like he’s just reacting to what they’ve given him or anything. But I was impressed by how different these characters were from what you might immediately expect. You know, having seen the trailer, I assumed Ben was going to be not a far cry from Rogan’s knocked up character. You something like that. And he’s actually quite different.
S6: It made me think I would like to see Seth Rogen sometime in a straight up dramatic role, just actually remake ordinary people with Seth Rogen. And I’m good with that. All right. My Rogen love having been expressed. Is there anything else we want to get to about the ending of the movie? How do they end up back in the US?
S5: It’s actually never explained how they get the deportation overturned. They just end up back in the United States.
S6: It’s something that the movie wanted to play with, this idea of them switching places and then kind of get passed as quickly as possible.
S5: And I goes back to my point that, again, I’m very grateful. The movie is eighty eight minutes long instead of two and a half hours. But I do also feel that the end of it is just speaking in this shorthand. It’s like, you know, they’re going to be reconciled. You know, that Ben is going to sort of discover the power of his Jewish roots, even if he doesn’t believe in God. And then, you know, they’re going to open a pickle business together and you know that they’re going to get back to the United States. And it’s almost sort of like it’s saying, we both know that this is what the story is going to be. So we’re just going to give you a couple of quick scenes where that happens and then we’re going to wrap it up. That felt a little empty to me, although I loved the scene of the two of them staring at the bog from the beginning of the movie. And now the bog is surrounded by, you know, horrible factories and power plants belching, you know, disgusting garbage into the air. And Ben says something like, I can understand it, I can understand it. This is a beautiful place. And I’m saying, you know, I’m so glad that this means something to you.
S6: Yeah, well, some of the great jokes for that very early prologue, I think are just about just how little it takes to make these very poor Jews in nineteen nineteen and Phillips, Kappy, Wright and his dream of one day drinking seltzer water, which we get to see him do, that’s that’s a nice and when he bites her, the smoked fish, he digs a bunch of ditches so he can save up all his money and by the woman he loves a smoked fish and then she just looks at it and she eats its face.
S4: Yeah. Yeah. All all of that stuff. I don’t know if you stuck around for the credits, but there’s also a delightful end credits scene where they watch a Yentl together.
S6: Yes, I’m glad. You reminded me of that because I wanted to make sure we tell people to stay for the credits if they do watch it, in fact, they then watch the whole credit sequence hoping for one more little pop up like that. And that was clearly a sort of throwaway gag that probably came up in filming that they didn’t know what else to do with. But, yeah, the idea of him thirsting for young Barbra Streisand as they watch it together was really young Barbra Streisand in drag.
S4: His discovery in that moment, his specific kink, and then explaining it was great grandson, that his great grandson is like, well, now I see it. Yeah, OK.
S6: I love when he clarifies she is doing what the younger says is. Oh yeah. I mean, this is again a very slight movie. I sort of agree with you that the end is a little bit deflating and a sort of is that all there is way, but it is sort of emotionally satisfying just to see both of these characters end up together. And again, I mean, I’ll just say that by core standards, I’m not sure I would necessarily send people flocking to the movies to sit and watch this. But if you have HBO, Max, or you want to try at HBO, Max, I definitely think American Idol is worth it. A 90 minute sit through.
S5: Yeah, it’s very enjoyable. It’s very charming. I think you’ll you’ll have a good time. I mean, I’ve always actually been a believer in Seth Rogen and maybe had a similar crush to yours, Dana, but I think it reveals new layers to his talent that are worth checking out.
S6: All right. Well, I guess that’s our show. I hate to wrap it up because it’s so much fun talking to you guys, but come back and spoil another movie with me soon.
S5: I would love to. Thanks for having me, Dana.
S8: Our producer today was Rosemary Bellson. And as always, you can write us at spoilers at Slate Dotcom. If you want to suggest another movie or TV show or podcast spoil, please subscribe to our show in the spoilers special podcast feed. And if you like the show, you can rate and review it in the Apple store that helps other people find us as well. For Isaac Butler, I’m Dan Stevens. We will talk to you soon.