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‘An American Pickle’ Review: Seth Rogen’s Bizarre Dual Performance

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Playing against himself as both an Eastern European immigrant and his Brooklyn great-grandchild, Rogen singlehandedly rescues this strange Jewish satire.

Few American actors have stayed in their lane as consistently as Seth Rogen, whose raspy stoner chuckle radiates with what-see-is-what-you-get conviction. “An American Pickle” turns that archetype inside out: Playing both an Eastern European Jew tossed into modern-day Manhattan through the magic of the brining process, as well as that same character’s bumbling modern-day great-grandchild, Rogen’s bizarre dual performance explores the roots of the slacker archetype in Jewish guilt.

It’s a total one-note joke — Tevye the Milkman meets “Encino Man” — and Rogen runs with it as far as he can, while the movie struggles to keep pace. Pitched somewhere between outrageous satire and sincerity, the movie has a tough time finding its priorities, but it’s endearing to watch it try. After all, that’s the same conundrum facing Ben Greenbaum, the modern-day New Yorker tasked with orienting Herschel Greenbaum to 21st century life even as the descendant has a hard time figuring out his own role in it.

But let’s back up for a minute. Directed by the talented cinematographer Brandon Trost (“The Disaster Artist”), “An American Pickle” adapts the short story “Sell Out,” by Simon Rich, who also wrote the screenplay. And it sure does show those concise roots: The bulk of the movie’s appeal has been established within the first 10 minutes, and it mostly coasts from there, as even the zanier twists rely on Rogen’s goofy turn. But those 10 minutes are so satisfying on their own terms that they help sustain the fragmented story to come.

Shot in a boxy aspect ration and the delicate colors of a Terrence Malick filter, the “American Pickle” prologue encapsulates the history of Jewish immigration pre-WWII with a charming off-kilter energy that would make Sholom Aleichem proud. With broken English filtered through a comical Yiddish accent, Herschel narrates the dramatic history of his young adulthood, beginning with his rough-and-tumble shtetl life in 1919 in the invented town of Schlupsk. It’s here that he courts soulmate Sarah (“Succession” breakout Sarah Snook, sadly underutilized) with the obvious romantic gesture of a smoked fish, and the pair get married at the center of town just in time for Cossacks to show up and slaughter their village.

Where “Fiddler on the Roof” winds down, “An American Pickle” gets going. It’s immigration time, as Herschel and Sarah beam with anticipation while riding past the Statue of Liberty, and soon they’ve become typical Brooklyn immigrants loaded with confidence about the land of opportunity. In short order, Herschel makes bold predictions to his pregnant wife about the success of their offspring and finds potential as the manager of a pickle factory. Everything’s going his way just as a rat infestation scares him into a vat, where he remains frozen for generations to come.

Nothing in “American Pickle” can match the silly storybook fantasy of its opening moments, but they do a good job of getting us hooked. Waking up in America circa 2019 — the year “American Pickle” was made, of course — Herschel finds himself poked and prodded by cartoonish scientists, dissected by the media, and just as easily forgotten. Sarah’s long gone, and he’s never met his son or grandchild, both of whom found plenty of success chasing the American dream. All Herschel has left is Ben, a lonely Brooklyn hipster desperate to sell his idea for a tech service nobody actually wants. A trim, bespectacled young man with misguided ambition, Ben’s certainly more mature than the type of Rogen characters the actor was playing 15 years ago. But it’s easy to imagine him as somewhere on the same family tree as “Knocked Up” loser Ben Stone (perhaps he was named for the guy?), and only slightly more committed to making something of himself.

Regardless, this Ben provides a hilarious contrast with the ancestor that shares the screen with him. Movie magic has duplicated the same actor in one frame countless times before, but there’s such a remarkable disconnect between Ben and Herschel — and their awkward chemistry is so convincing — that they may as well be different performers altogether. It’s the first time since he played the Woz in “Steve Jobs” that Rogen has found material that actually pushes him into new territory, but this time he does so without negating his comedic instincts.

There’s not much to Ben aside from melancholy that occasionally bursts into outright frustration, but that only gives Herschel more to push back on. A wide-eyed beardo who somehow never sheds his old-world attire, Herschel speaks in bursts of Semitic overstatement, resulting in a gonzo turn that’s equal parts Yaakov Smirnoff and Borat. And of course he immediately casts a judgmental eye on Ben’s failed entrepreneurial ambitions: “You vork for five years,” he growls, eying his great-grandson’s studio apartment. “How come you no sell?”

The tension between the men only rises from there, and after an ill-conceived visit to the old family plot (where Herschel decides a billboard with a Smirnoff ad is the equivalent of a Russian invasion), the pair spend the night in prison and Ben decides he’s had enough with the family bonding thing. Herschel hits the streets, committed to showing his great-grandson what real work looks like; somehow, through an amusing montage of dumpster diving for cucumbers and filling jars with rainwater, he goes from wandering loon to artisanal pickle salesman, becoming a viral phenomenon in the process — all to spite Ben, and give him a lesson in determination.

The ensuing war between the men unfolds under increasingly outrageous circumstances, and it’s here that “American Pickle” loses grasp of its material, careening into vast and unfocused satiric terrain: Herschel goes from enjoying life as a social media celebrity, to being condemned as a bigot, and ostracized as an immigrant, while the world of the movie turns out to be as exaggerated as its central character. (Onur Tukel’s under-appreciated “Catfight,” in which Sandra Oh and Anne Heche keep knocking each other into comas and reawakening across generations, managed this kind of expansive go-for-broke satire with more consistency.) As Herschel discovers the paradoxes of American society, the title of “An American Pickle” takes on a double-meaning as the movie aims for a savage takedown of the country’s exceptionalism, but it’s not quite sophisticated enough for the task at hand.

Trost, who previously co-directed the hilarious dystopian dance gang movie “The FP,” is no stranger to taking an unusual premise to certain extremes. “An American Pickle” represents an attempt to give that impulse more accessible form, and Rogen takes it there. But the nature of Herschel’s conundrum raises many questions: Made in the midst of a resurgence in blatant anti-Semitism across the U.S., it’s a strange choice for “An American Pickle” to reveal that Herschel’s greatest backlash comes from…violent Christians? The movie sidesteps the most alarming aspect of Jewish persecution — its resurgence in public over the last four years — and never even gives Herschel a chance to learn about the Holocaust. The closest it comes to acknowledging the realities of Jewish struggle comes from a passing exchange with Ben after they both endure hard times. Herschel: “If one thing true in America, once you say terrible things, you will never be a success.” Ben: “That is definitely not true at all.”

If “American Pickle” had the nerve to go deeper (and darker) into that sentiment, it might have mustered the complexity of the performance Rogen has pulled off here. Still, it’s enjoyable enough to watch the actor single-handedly rescue the high concept surrounding him. It’s also easy to see why a studio like Sony passed off “An American Pickle” to HBO Max, as the movie doesn’t exactly register as an easy marketing win. Nevertheless, there’s a certain appeal to the kind of escapism the movie offers that makes it readymade for the challenges of the 2020 climate greeting its release. Herschel Greenbaum may not know what he’s doing, but that never stops his commitment, and he’s a welcome embodiment of survival against impossible odds. While Ben tends to kvetch about his failures, Herschel charges forward, and a little chutzpah goes a long way.

Grade: B-

“American Pickle” will be available to stream on HBO Max on Thursday, August 6.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and Pioneer of Gender Equality, Dead at 87

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice and trailblazing feminist icon who had fought off colon, lung and liver cancer, died Friday of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the Supreme Court announced. She was 87.

“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

Her death presents President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the opportunity to make another appointment on the nation’s highest court, further solidifying its rightward drift and endangering cornerstone precedents like Roe v. Wade. In the days leading up to her death, Ginsberg reportedly told her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” according to NPR.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be called a liberal or a conservative,” President Bill Clinton said when he nominated her to the high court in 1993. “She has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels.” But by the end of her almost-three-decade tenure on the court, Ginsburg was widely adored as a patron saint of the progressive left, with legions of fans who paid homage with Halloween costumes, prayer candles, and innumerable Etsy knickknacks emblazoned with her face and nickname: “the Notorious R.B.G.”

A liberal stalwart through successive conservative-leaning majorities, Ginsburg will be remembered for her fiery dissents and work defending reproductive and civil rights, including those of the LGBTQ community. But it’s Ginsburg’s career before she took her place on the high court that may represent her longest-lasting legacy. As director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which she co-founded, she was instrumental in establishing that equal protection under the law should extend to gender, winning five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court on gender discrimination. 

Moritz v. Commissioner, the groundbreaking case she argued before a District Court in 1972, was the subject of the 2018 feature film On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones. “Everyone has sort of their own Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right?” said her nephew Daniel Stiepleman, who wrote the film’s screenplay. “For some people, she’s a superhero, and for some people, lest we forget, she’s a demon. But for me, she’s just Aunt Ruth. She’s a woman who changed the world, but she did [it] with her brain and she did it with her intellect, and she did it with the support of her family, and she did it with hard work. And we can all do it if we also have those things.” 

Joan Ruth Bader was born March 15th, 1933, to a Jewish family in working-class Brooklyn (she went by Ruth to avoid confusion with other Joans in her elementary school). Her mother, whom she credited with fostering her independence and self-sufficiency, died of cervical cancer before the future justice graduated high school. Ruth went on to Cornell University, where she met Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” In 1954, they married soon after graduation; she took his last name and the initial that would eventually complete her “notorious” moniker.

Blazing a path through the post-war patriarchy, Ginsburg enrolled first at Harvard Law, where women were denied entrance to one of the libraries and where she was once asked by a dean, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” She became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review, but ultimately finished her legal studies at Columbia following a move to New York with her husband and young daughter, Jane. (They later also had a son, James.) Although she ranked at the top of her class, Ginsburg was denied a clerkship at the Supreme Court from Justice Felix Frankfurter, who inquired whether Ginsburg wore a skirt, adding, “I can’t stand girls in pants!”

Ginsburg’s climb to the high court wound through a District Court clerkship and a research project at Columbia that included a stint in Sweden, where women’s equality was years ahead of America’s. Hired as one of the first female law professors in the country, Ginsburg taught first at Rutgers University, where she founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, and later at Columbia Law School, where she became the school’s first tenured female professor. 

In 1972, Ginsburg founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, arguing six gender-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976. A brilliant strategist, Ginsburg often chose cases in which male plaintiffs were discriminated against, believing that their plights would be easier for male justices to empathize with, and to show that gender discrimination harmed both men and women. Her well-plotted, incremental cases added up to a great leap in women’s equal protection under the Constitution. (Ginsburg used the term “gender” rather than “sex” to avoid “distracting associations” for the nine male justices.) In her first appearance before the high court, she famously resurrected a quote from 19th-century feminist Sarah Grimke: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”  

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at an annual Women’s History Month reception hosted on Capitol Hill in 2015.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

A fierce defender of reproductive rights, Ginsburg was not, however, a fan of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. She believed the decision went too far, too fast — that a woman’s right to choose would have been better protected if it were established gradually through case law and legislation throughout the country; by putting it all on one case, she believed, it would galvanize opponents and give them a single target to focus on. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable,” Ginsburg said in a 1993 speech at NYU Law School. She also lamented that Roe was based on a right to privacy rather than women’s equality. 

At the time of Roe, Ginsburg was litigating a different case of a pregnant Air Force captain who was told she would either have to have an abortion or leave her job. The circumstances of that case, Ginsburg believed, would have provided a firmer footing for women’s equal protection under the law and acted as a clearer illustration of the important underlying principle: that a woman should be allowed to decide the course of her life — including whether to have a child or not. (Pointing out the hypocrisy of how the U.S. government not only allowed but also encouraged abortion on military bases, when it served their purposes, was a bonus.)

Nominated by Jimmy Carter to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980, Ginsburg served there with arch-conservatives like Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia. The latter, a fellow opera aficionado, would become a lifelong friend. She earned a reputation as more of a judicious moderate than a liberal firebrand. 

Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court came in 1993. After unlikely ally and Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch vociferously praised her, Bill Clinton put her name forward, calling her “the Thurgood Marshall of gender-equality law.” Ginsburg was confirmed by a bipartisan supermajority that would be inconceivable in our current tribalized age — 96-to-3, with the “nays” led by Sen. Jesse Helms, the notorious North Carolina bigot.

Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, after Sandra Day O’Connor, and the first Jewish justice since 1969. She served as the sole woman jurist from 2006, when O’Connor retired, to 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor joined the court. 

Recognized for her distinctive neck pieces nearly as much as her nimble mind, Ginsburg took to wearing her trademark frilly white jabot, she once explained, because “the standard robe is made for a man, because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie.… O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.” She eventually amassed an entire collection of collars, many with their own special significance, like the sequin-studded piece she wore on the days she delivered a dissent from the bench. 

Ginsburg slowly emerged as the superstar of the court’s liberal wing. She wrote the majority decision in the case that forced the all-male Virginia Military Institute to admit women, and helped marshal an 8-1 majority in a case that found a school’s strip-search of a young teen, suspected of hiding ibuprofen in her underwear, had violated her constitutional rights. “They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” Ginsburg said of her male counterparts after an exasperating round of oral arguments. “I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”

But Ginsburg often shined brightest in dissent. She delivered a scathing dissent from the bench in the 2006 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber pay-equity case, in which female plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter was denied decades of back wages because her discovery of being paid far less than her male counterparts happened after a statute of limitations had expired. “The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg said. (Congress was moved to change the law, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed by President Obama.)

Supreme Court Justice nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg testifying before Sen. Judiciary Comm. in her Capitol Hill confirmation hearing, 1993.

Supreme Court Justice nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg testifying before Sen. Judiciary Comm. in her Capitol Hill confirmation hearing, 1993.

Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

It was the moral clarity of her dissent in the Voting Rights Act case Shelby v. Alabama in 2013 that spawned both a fan-art Tumblr and the nickname the Notorious R.B.G. — comparing the five-foot-one-inch justice to the late hip-hop giant Notorious B.I.G. 

The case challenged a provision in the Voting Rights Act that forced Southern states to get federal approval before making any changes to election practices. Ginsburg likened the majority’s decision — which removed the federal oversight and argued it was no longer necessary because voter suppression wasn’t the “flagrant” problem it was when the law first passed in 1965 — to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Ginsburg, who once professed she became a lawyer because “I have no talent in the arts,” was suddenly an American icon. In 2018, — the same year that On the Basis of Sex was released — Ginsberg was the subject of the hit documentary RBG. Her “dissent” jabot even inspired a Banana Republic knockoff, with sales benefiting the ACLU. She reveled in her nickname. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you feel uncomfortable, being with a name like Notorious B.I.G.?’ Why should I feel uncomfortable? We have a lot in common,” she said of Biggie, a fellow Brooklyn native. (Ginsburg’s embrace of black culture was not always so gracious. She infamously called Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games “terrible … dumb and disrespectful,” before apologizing that she’d been “inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”) 

Late in life, Ginsburg became an unlikely fitness influencer, following bouts with colon cancer (1999) and lung cancer (2018). Her strength-training regimen became legend; she returned to planking only weeks after a fall that broke three of her ribs in 2018. She was again treated for pancreatic cancer in August 2019. Her health scares would drum up speculation that she would step down from the bench, but she always soldiered on. “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here,” she said in 2018.

Ginsburg’s death gives Trump a chance to name a third, hard-right jurist to the highest court, completing a project that began with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Obama’s centrist nominee Merrick Garland. Trump is likely to select another reactionary in the mold of Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito, placing precedents that have guided American jurisprudence for decades on the chopping block, and endangering rights that Ginsburg worked a lifetime to expand and protect. As terrifying as that prospect seems, Ginsburg herself might view circumstances differently. Reflecting, back in 2012, on the circuitous path that ultimately brought her to the high court, she said, “So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”

Until the very end, Ginsburg maintained the long view of history and a sense of optimism about the future. “I’ve seen great changes in my long life,” she said, accepting an award in 2019. “Though we haven’t reached nirvana, we have come a long way from the days when women couldn’t do things just because they were female.”

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Cable News Preps for a ‘Monumental Fight’ Over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Replacement

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The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will set off a massive political battle over her replacement, and just a few hours later on Friday night, the cable networks were already getting in place to cover it.

On MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” the tone was somber, as the show broadcast live images of a vigil outside the Supreme Court building. Maddow interviewed NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who related that Ginsburg’s dying wish was that the next president would pick her replacement.

“There’s going to be a monumental fight over this,” Totenberg said. “I’m not optimistic that what she wanted, her fervent wish, will in fact take place, but you never know. You really never know.”

Shortly after Ginsburg’s death was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying that President Trump’s nominee would get a vote on the floor. Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking to invoke the “McConnell Rule” — recalling the leader’s refusal to consider President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland in the 2016 election year.

On Fox News, legal commentator Jay Sekulow — who worked as Trump’s outside counsel during the impeachment — predicted that there would be a decent interval of a couple of days to mourn Ginsburg before the political fight begins.

“The battle will be pitched on Monday, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Sekulow said on “Hannity,” as he sketched out the Republican argument for allowing Trump to replace Ginsburg. “The president nominates with the advice of the United States Senate. That’s how it works. The Constitution doesn’t change when you’re five months before, two weeks or after an election.”

The vacancy on the court will raise the stakes — if possible — in the presidential election, less than six weeks before the vote. The confirmation hearings can also be expected to exceed even the high drama of the battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

That fight riveted the nation, though Kavanaugh was replacing another conservative, Justice Anthony Kennedy. In this case, Trump’s nominee would replace the court’s leading liberal. As with Kavanaugh, all eyes will be on a handful of Republican senators, including Sen. Susan Collins, who is up for re-election in November, and will face tremendous political pressure to back up McConnell and Trump.

On CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” commentator David Gergen predicted that the fight would help Joe Biden.

“I think this plays into Biden’s hands,” he said. “The unfairness is so — it shrieks of hypocrisy.”

Biden issued a statement Friday night, saying “The voters should pick a President, and that President should select a successor to Justice Ginsburg. This was the position that the Republican Senate took in 2016, when there were nearly nine months before the election. That is the position the United States Senate must take now, when the election is less than two months away. We are talking about the Constitution and the Supreme Court. That institution should not be subject to politics.”

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Jamal Murray Says It’s A ‘Dream’ To Face His ‘Idol’ LeBron James In The Conference Finals

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Aside from the Miami Heat, the Denver Nuggets have been arguably the most pleasant surprise of the postseason in Orlando. They’ve overcome historic odds, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in each of their last two series to earn a spot in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers,

Along the way, their star duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have been phenomenal. Murray has averaged 27.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and five assists, while shooting 50/49/91 and logging four 40-plus point games. Those are tremendous numbers for the 23-year-old sensation.

His superstar turn now pits him against the Lakers and LeBron James, who has long been his idol and who he is eager to face off against when Game 1 tips off on Friday night in the Bubble. Here’s what he told Shams Charania of Stadium. [Skip to the 5:45 mark of the video]

Murray and the Nuggets certainly have their work cut out for them, but if we’ve learned anything so far, it’s a fool’s folly to count Denver out of anything. Much of this series will depend on matchups, but one thing’s for certain: Murray will have to continue is stellar play to give his team a chance to make the NBA Finals.

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