Film Review – Lemon
I usually bristle at the descriptor “anti-comedy,” but am struggling to come up with another term to accurately sum up Janicza Bravo‘s Lemon, starring husband and dependable weirdo Brett Gelman. Those familiar with Gelman’s stand up and occasional Adult Swim forays won’t be shocked to learn his first starring role is polarizing almost to a fault. Maybe that’s the point.
Gelman stars as Isaac, a brimming-with-disdain actor/acting teacher whose only notable recent gig comes in the form of an adult diaper commercial. His wife Ramona (Judy Greer) is emotionally vacant from the very first scene of the movie, actively avoiding any form of intimacy or camaraderie with Isaac. The point at which we’re dropped into their marriage all but defines “last legs.” Ramona is blind also, a choice that seems less bold then shipped in directly from Quirk, Inc.
Set to an overtly foreboding score by Heather Christian, Lemon most often seems content reveling in the audience’s discomfort. While the appearances by Michael Cera as Isaac’s hilariously pompous (and permed?) star pupil Alex pack some of the film’s bigger laughs, channeling that oddball energy that made his recent Twin Peaks stint so memorable, it’s the uncalled for humiliation rained upon another student (Gillian Jacobs) that’s likely to stick with you.
One of the supposed livelier sequences comes late, at a Passover celebration packed with family and friends seemingly only brought together to yell and glare at one another. Considering the talent corralled for the scene (David Paymer, Martin Starr, Shiri Appleby, Rhea Perlman), you might expect it to build to something impactful. Instead it sort of just meanders and, I guess, provides a contrast for a similar scene later in the movie. Again, maybe that’s the point?
This later scene involves the evolving relationship of Isaac and makeup artist Cleo (Nia Long). The development seems ripe for cultural observation, especially given Gelman and Bravo’s real-life relationship, but the story arc is introduced so late it isn’t given enough time to be fully fleshed out. There are a few nice touches to be found, including Isaac’s attempts to relate (“I saw a documentary about hair in the African American community” and “My sister has a black son.”), but the fact that we’re given no indication as to why Cleo saddles up with this sad sack in the first place has this character study ringing more hollow than it maybe intends.
There are no real belly laughs in Lemon unless you’re willing to dig for them. In many ways it’s reminiscent of Rick Alverson‘s films Entertainment and The Comedy, the latter of which happens to be my second favorite movie of 2012. As unpleasant an experience as those films outwardly are, though, they provide enough detail of their protagonists to garner a certain empathy, loathsome as they may be. This is an attribute Lemon severely lacks, unfortunately. Scene for scene, there are moments of deft humor and occasional greatness. It’s too bad it doesn’t gel or stick the landing.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with co-writer/star Brett Gelman and co-writer/director Janicza Bravo.