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“An American Pickle,” Reviewed: A Sentimental Fantasy of Generational Conflict and an Immigrant’s Struggles

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The inspired premise of “An American Pickle” (coming to HBO Max this Thursday) immediately invites a vast range of imaginative possibilities. Directed by Brandon Trost and written by Simon Rich—based on his own series of Web pieces in The New Yorker—the movie is a New York Jewish twist on the Rip Van Winkle theme. It stars Seth Rogen in a double role—first, as Herschel Greenbaum, a poor young Jewish man from the Eastern European shtetl of Schlupsk, where he’s in danger of drowning in clichés. He and a young woman named Sarah (Sarah Snook) marry and emigrate to the United States, seemingly in the nineteen-tens. They live in Brooklyn, where Herschel has a miserable and poorly paid job killing rats in a pickle factory; in 1920, the thirtyish laborer accidentally falls into a vat of pickles, moments before it’s sealed and the factory is shuttered. In 2020, the vat is still in the now abandoned factory—and Herschel emerges from it, perfectly preserved and intact, exactly as he went in.

In Rich’s short story, Herschel is thrust unceremoniously (and also without any detail) into the tumult of modern-day Brooklyn. The movie, however, offers a fine and promising twist: inevitably, the revenant from the brine becomes a celebrity of sorts, an instant big news story; the authorities, discovering Herschel’s legal identity, also find that he has one living descendant, a thirtyish great-grandson named Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen), who is, in effect, his identical great-grandson. (Their only difference is Herschel’s short but untamed beard.) Privatizing the problem of Herschel, officials deliver him to Ben, a jovial yet solitary app developer—working on one app, Boop Bop, that will rate companies on ethics and give consumers access to the numerical rating, and for which he’s counting on a generous venture-capital sale.

Conveniently, Ben is an orphan—an only child whose parents were killed in a car accident in 2014—and apparently has no extended family. For his part, Herschel learns that Sarah died long ago, as did their son, Mort (who was born after Herschel’s brining). The scant yet nonetheless droll details of Herschel’s reëmergence—his contact with officialdom, with media, with modern medicine—hold out a promise that the movie doesn’t deliver. In 1920, Herschel would have known skyscrapers and movies, records and automobiles and airplanes; he’d have known of the Great War and the flu pandemic. The New York of Jewish immigrants was turbulent, complex, emotionally strenuous (see Henry Roth’s 1934 novel “Call It Sleep,” in which the writer, born in 1906, evokes his childhood through the eyes of a fictional child); Herschel’s bland simplicity suggests the opposite, a dull and featureless past. Moreover, what he wouldn’t have known was his son and his grandson—but he hardly asks Ben anything about the family, and Ben volunteers nothing more.

There’s something else that Herschel wouldn’t have known, and it’s all the stranger given that (spoiler alert) the movie takes a brief detour to Schlupsk: he wouldn’t have known of the Holocaust, of the fact that more or less everyone he’d grown up with would have been exterminated by the Nazis. Yet not a word, not a hint, of the Holocaust appears in “American Pickle”; the anti-Semitic violence that does get referenced—the Cossacks whose marauding in Schlupsk prompts Herschel and Sarah to emigrate—is played for laughs.

Rogen’s comedic career has become dominated by an ethical focus, even an ethical obsession, that, in the desire to convey good values with good humor, has lost its spice, its risk, its sense of human trouble. As a result, his comedy has become filtered, replacing a wide purview and the possibility of wild emotion and loose-ended impulse with schticky tropes. “An American Pickle” is framed as a picaresque adventure, and it touches on details of contemporary life only in order to lampoon their peculiarities. The satirical light that Herschel’s perspective brings to bear on current events is narrowly focussed and dim with sentiment and piety, nodding at “Fiddler on the Roof.” Instead, the movie breezes by the manifold specifics of current affairs that it references in order to reach the small set of points it is most interested in underscoring.

Those points become apparent early on, when Herschel obliviously manages to make a mess of Ben’s sales pitch for Boop Bop. The two men argue, and Herschel goes off on his own, living homeless (another grievous social ill played as an inconsequential joke). Using his one acquired bit of professional knowledge from before his brining, he then manages to become an overnight success as an artisanal pickle vender on the streets of Williamsburg. Yet, in the process, he has to negotiate the price of fame—and it’s here that the movie’s satire kicks in.

Though Herschel, in Schlupsk, appears to be a gentle and tender soul whose big dreams remain sweetly modest, he’s revealed, in his 2020 incarnation, to be what’s called in Yiddish a bulvan: a boastful loudmouth, an aggressive know-it-all. His obstreperous manner matches impulsive violence, reckless vanity, overweening pride, ethnocentricity, and other attitudes that are not, so to speak, P.C., and are no longer acceptable, at least in Ben’s circles. But Herschel also possesses ferocious willpower—a rage to survive, to thrive, to prosper, to triumph—that comes off, in the movie’s view, as the embarrassingly bare-toothed mark of off-the-boat immigrant ancestors who, handed nothing, fought their way brutishly for a toehold on the American Dream—and whose descendants, educated and polished and bourgeois-ified, find them an embarrassment.

This myth of the immigrant who’s willing to take on grossly unpleasant work in order to survive—and who, with pluck and determination, leaps from there to shining success—is presented unchallenged. In Rich’s short story, the arrival of Herschel (there called Herschel Rich) turns out to be a touchstone for the depressingly bourgeois-hipster world of his great-great-grandson, named Simon Rich, a Brooklyn-based Hollywood script doctor who’s besotted with ego and celebrity. Though the New Yorker piece “Sell Out,” which Herschel narrates, is filled with exaggerated comedic impossibilities, it retains an acerbity of detail (suggested even in its title) that threatens, like the pickles, to curl the teeth. (“That is why you do not care about money,” Herschel declares. “Because you already have so much of it. For you, all of life is happy game.”) The movie “An American Pickle” performs a remarkable, sentimental reversal: its subject is Ben’s reconciliation not only with Herschel, personally, but with his set of ideas. In effect, what Ben must reconcile with is more than his personal past; it’s the collective cultural past of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other unchallenged modes of prejudice. It’s this reconciliation, the overcoming of the notion of apologizing for or being embarrassed by the recent cultural past, that “An American Pickle” strains to achieve.

Herschel’s celebrity appears borrowed from the Peter Sellers character in “Being There”—his plain and gruff utterances are interpreted by the sensation-hungry media as profundities. Yet along the way, he confronts the power and the disgrace of celebrity, and faces a far wider range of modern torments. In addition to reaching for little satirical nods to today’s sordid Presidency, “An American Pickle” pivots on a critique of cancel culture, left and right (suggesting that that the former is peevish, the latter is violent—and abetted by the force of law). It’s revealing to see which of Herschel’s struggles the movie plays for comedy or tosses off as mere plot devices: not only homelessness but arrest, incarceration, weaponized deportation and its aftermath. The focus of “An American Pickle” remains the world of media; to Rogen, the practical challenges and real dangers that a current-day immigrant might face remain abstractions. The entire movie is Boop Bopped: its ethical characteristics are revealed as disembodied and impersonal.

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Stephen Colbert calls Trump America’s racist uncle after new report

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Stephen Colbert’s monologue responded to current and former administration members’ comments on President Trump

Stephen Colbert labeled President Donald Trump “America’s racist uncle” last night on The Late Show. The late-night comedian reacted to a Washington Post article detailed the president’s private views on Black Americans.

The content of the report, which cited past and present administration members, didn’t come as too much of a shock to Colbert. The Late Show has been documenting President Trump’s alleged and demonstrated racist remarks, tweets, and policies for years.

Still, Colbert did not want this story to get lost among other headlines about the Supreme Court, the novel coronavirus pandemic, or the upcoming election. Wednesday night’s monologue zeroed in on the Washington Post report.

Colbert attacked President Trump while calling him the country’s “racist uncle.” The running joke was part of Colbert’s larger point about the principles, or lack of principles, being used to guide President Trump’s decisions.

Stephen Colbert blamed President Trump for flaming racial tension in America

Stephen Colbert and other late-night hosts have made it clear they don’t think that President Trump is the cause of all of America’s problems. But they do see him as symptomatic of larger issues as well as having exacerbated many of them.

Colbert frames his attack on President Trump’s record on race following the news that one police officer involved in the death of Breonna Taylor was indicted on endangerment charges. It led to more protests and again Colbert cited the lack of moral leadership from the White House that could help the country.

Colbert adds the Washington Post report to a long list of stories, books, and interviews on President Trump’s record on race. There are too many examples to suggest comments have been misinterpreted or could even be defended, argues Colbert. The Late Show host is just holding out hope that “America’s racist uncle” will be removed from his seat at the head of the table soon.

What did you think of Stephen Colbert’s monologue? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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BTS week is coming to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

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The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will welcome BTS for a week of shows

BTS, the biggest band in the world, is making its home at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon all next week. The K-pop band is set to perform all five nights.

It wasn’t all that long ago that BTS took over The Tonight Show. Fans no doubt remember Jimmy Fallon giving the band a tour of New York City, holding the “Subway Olympics,” and the massive Grand Central performance of their single “ON.”

Now the boys are back for another late-night takeover. Fallon announced that the band will appear starting Monday, Sept. 28. Things will kick off with a performance with some help from Fallon and The Roots. Then fans will be treated to a new song every night.

There is no doubt that “Dynamite” will be among the songs the band performs for the Tonight Show audience. The band’s first song recorded completely in English was an instant hit, setting records and giving BTS its first number-one single in the U.S.

The other songs will come as a surprise to those who tune in. The BTS Army will surely have requests and predictions but we won’t know for sure until next week when the band closes out each episode of The Tonight Show.

BTS continues to have a rewarding relationship with late-night television

It hasn’t been easy for late-night television shows during the pandemic. Without a studio audience and without live guests, it has been difficult to differentiate shows and prevent things from becoming stale.

Jimmy Fallon and others have done their best and have already gone above and beyond what fans could have expected. But The Tonight Show is making the wise decision by turning to BTS to create a special event and giving late-night TV a shot of energy.

Nearly every late-night show has featured BTS as interview guests and/or musical performers. And every time that has happened, the audience has expanded. BTS boasts the most dedicated and caring fanbase in music and it shows anytime the band provides a live performance.

The Tonight Show knows this better than almost anyone and it surely factored into the decision to invite the band for a week of shows. And while the pandemic will prevent Fallon and the band from interacting in person, the week will nevertheless be a must-see event. BTS knows how to put on a show and The Tonight Show has mastered the remote format.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon airs weeknights on NBC at 11:35 p.m. You can also stream the show on Peacock, watch on the NBC website or app, or on Fubo TV.

Will you be watching the latest BTS late-night takeover? What are your predictions for the songs the band will perform? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Hey ‘Mandalorian’—Cool It with the Jedi Lore in Season 2

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At this point in 2020, The Mandalorian Season 2 is one of the few bright spots left in the waning days of a disastrous year. Truly, my favorite show of 2019 could come back with a season that’s just 90-minute episodes of Din Djarin chasing Sebulba across the Dune Sea to “Yakety Sax” like an intergalactic Roadrunner cartoon and I’d probably be into it. I need to make it crystal clear that I’m happy with whatever showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni give me. I just want to get away to a galaxy far, far away! But, all that being said, there’s one hope I have for Season 2: I hope they take it easy on all the Jedi lore.

So far all we officially know about Season 2 is what we’ve already seen in the trailer. And in that trailer, we get what seems to be the mission statement of the season: our hero Mando has been tasked with delivering Baby Yoda to his home planet, back into the arms of a “race of enemy sorcerers” known, as sung in the ancient folk songs of Mandalore, as Jedi. And while that voiceover plays, we get a glimpse of someone who may be one with the Force (although it’s entirely likely that Sasha Banks is playing someone else entirely).

Sasha Banks in The Mandalorian teaser
Photo: Lucasfilm

This is a big deal for The Mandalorian the show as well as the Mandalorian the man. Compared to a whole lot of other Star Wars movies and shows, The Mandalorian was pretty atheist. It focused heavily on the scum and villainy of the universe, fitting for a show with a notorious bounty hunter in the lead. The show’s only connection to the Force was one adorable green moppet with a higher calling (and, yeah, that last-minute Darksaber reveal). With Mando tasked with taking the child back to his people, Season 2 could become a relative Jedi jamboree.

That should not be the way.

Of course, this all boils down to personal preference—and personally, I prefer my Star Wars with minimal Jedi entanglement. But I do believe this preference is justified a bit because of not only when The Mandalorian is set in the timeline, but the specific vibe of the entire show. To be blunt about it: The Mandalorian is an original trilogy show—the 1977 to 1983 trilogy—in every way.

The Mandalorian Season 2 - Din Djarin on speeder bike
Photo: Disney+

The Star Wars canon has become so Jedi focused over the past 20 years that it’s easy to forget just how few of them were featured in the original Star Wars movies. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine. That was it for three movies, and really, that was it until the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999 (unless, of course, you count expanded universe additions like Princess Leia and her children, Mara Jade, and—of course—Ken, the Jedi Prince). But the first three movies, all the Star Wars we ever thought we’d get for a long time, had only a handful of Force users.

The prequel trilogy—1999 to 2005—and subsequent animated spinoffs shifted the balance in the opposite direction. Gone were a lot of the smugglers and scoundrels that populated the original trilogy, replaced with hundreds of Jedi, Sith, Dark Jedi, the Inquisitorius—the galaxy was filled with Force users! The stories, naturally, became even more about magic and mysticism, a bit more sword and sorcery-y.

STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES, Hayden Christensen (left, green lightsaber), Samuel L. Jackson (front, center)
Photo: Everett Collection

Note: I don’t think this is a bad thing. I love Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I love Ahsoka Tano, I love Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, I love Darth Maul’s transformation from disposable villain to evil mastermind, and I love all of the Jedi mythology that was unearthed in Star Wars Rebels. These aren’t bad things! They’re just different things—and so far, The Mandalorian has very definitively been one of those things.

Set five years in-continuity after Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian takes place roughly 28 years after Palpatine ordered the execution of every single Jedi, from youngling to master, in the galaxy. Palpatine so thoroughly declared the Jedi “fake news” that most of the galaxy has completely forgotten that a literal army of space wizards once kept the peace. When the Armorer tells Din Djarin about the Jedi in the Season 1 finale, you get the impression that this is the first time he’s hearing the word. It’s fascinating, and it gives The Mandalorian a unique, outsider, uninformed angle on Jedi lore that I hope they don’t squander by forcing in a bunch of Jedi info dumps.

The Mandalorian Season 2 - Din Djarin and Baby Yoda
Photo: Disney+

Because right now, while The Mandalorian does feel like an “original trilogy” show, it feels even more like a totally original take on Star Wars. Prior to The Mandalorian, every show and movie had centered on either the Jedi or the Rebellion. The only exceptions to that are a handful of Clone Wars episodes and possibly Solo: A Star Wars Story, although that film tells the origin story of a great hero of the Rebellion. No Star Wars anything has focused so strictly on what’s going on over there, outside of the war between Jedi and Sith and the struggle between Rebellion and Empire. I’m excited to see the show continue to venture out into the franchise’s wild west!

All this being said, of course The Mandalorian Season 2 is going to have Jedi moments, just like it’s going to have Imperial and Rebel moments. We see all that in the trailer. And you better believe I am stoked as hell to see live-action Ahsoka Tano, the most important character in the Star Wars saga to never appear in live-action up until now. But I hope The Mandalorian, even on its quest to find Baby Yoda’s home, lets the Jedi stuff simmer in the background. Keep it special. Leave us wanting more Ahsoka. Don’t answer all of Din’s questions about the Force right away. Keep it mysterious and as vague as can be, just like in the original trilogy. That feels like the way, to me.

But also, as I said, if you want to de-age Din Djarin by a few decades and turn the show into Mando Babies, like… whatever. Just entertain me.

Stream The Mandalorian on Disney+

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