Humans. Such a savage tribe. Complex beings who view heartwarming triumphs and delusional meltdowns with the same excitement. Life deals a bum hand now and again, which we like to see in our movies – something Janicza Bravo’s Lemon understands. A quirky, deadpan descent into emotional abandonment that tears one man apart day by day. Arthouse to the core, but with detrimental and divisive results. You can only endure so many jump-away cuts and vapid characters before dialogue becomes Charlie-Brown-teacher monotone. “Wah wah, wah wah,” cut to thrown cake. “Wah wah,” enter Megan Mullally. A formula always followed by the same question – “Why?”
Brett Gelman stars as Isaac, whose blind wife of 10 years just walked out for good. At the same time, his star theater pupil Alex (Michael Cera) is leaving for a major motion picture filming in Denmark. It doesn’t help that his agent (played by Jeff Garlin) can only book Isaac medication advertisements, or that his family is just as dysfunctional as he is. This pushes Isaac into a dark tumble, where meaning becomes harder and harder to come by. The only ray of sunshine is his possible new love interest, gentle Cleo (Nia Long). Can he keep his mouth shut about personal differences long enough to win her over? Or should he chalk another loss on the proverbial scorecard.
Movies like Lemon are are typically won or lost in the opening minutes. Pacing, oddities, mood – a director like Bravo lays her cards out without wasting any time. The same goes for something like Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, another dry-as-a-desert dramedy with similarly apathetic tones. Power derived from chaos, and effectiveness from commitment to absurdity. There’s no backing down. You have to build a world where our basic realities blend with habitual unruliness, drawing us into a parallel Earth dreamed up by beat poets and progressive brushstrokes.
Unfortunately, Lemon struggles to strike immediate appeal. Bravo, who is married to star Brett Gelman, exposes personal anecdotes by showing Isaac’s struggle to blend Jewish and African American cultures. One minute we’re at a refer-toking backyard barbecue, the next huddled around a piano singing “Million Matzah Balls.” Interracial romance and the stress that comes with it – but these moments aren’t offered until later into Isaac’s breakdown. First comes his split with Ramona (Judy Greer), cold and emotionless every step of the way. Intentions are never hidden and inevitability mounts. Maybe Bravo shows her hand a bit too early?
Gelman displays the charisma of a serial killer, stone-faced in appearance but tormented by a pain that rages inside. It is, in a word, necessary. Bravo surrounds Isaac with characters who can influence his life in numerous ways, only to accentuate her protagonist’s constant wallow. Michael Cera, the pretentious acting student who might be his only friend. Gillian Jacobs, the female student he berates and ignores in favor of Cera’s masturbatory self-praise. Two characters who are used, or ignored, or abused by Gelman without much explanation besides instant pivots in editing. Scene by scene we’re tied to Isaac’s inability to navigate feeling and nothing else. Surrealist reactions to tragedy (screaming at random, bodily expulsions, robotic pining), oblivious to nurtured escalation.
Bravo’s abundance of inexplicable details makes for an interesting conundrum at first, but mystery soon fades. The first time she cuts away from Jacobs mid-sentence (a comment on insignificance in Isaac’s life), I laughed. The second time, I tilted my head. Then the bit just dies out, along with Cera’s existence as a full-of-himself muse. David Paymer suggest it’s time to hit the “restart” button, Rex Lee goes on and on about his restaurant’s 300 dishes, abrasive race cards are thrown – but nothing ever sticks. Actions for “wtf” sake left wholly to audience perception no matter how severe or underplayed.
Lemon, as a creative exercise, earns merit. Janicza Bravo brandishes a fearless funkiness that marries choral hymns with Brett Gelman standing stiffly in his underwear. From here it’s a straight-forward nosedive through a stage-play-like lens. Experimentation with reason, character and purpose – but as a cinematic offering? More off-color stories have been told about being served life’s biggest lemon, all with more stinging, lasting reflections. Unlike Lemon, which leaves a sour taste and a slight emptiness that whiffs on any dramatic reverence.
Lemon rolls a bunch of sequential scenes from start to finish, fruitless and unfortunate in its lack of any lasting effect.