CAPSULE: LEMON (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Janicza Bravo

FEATURING: Brett Gelman, , Nia Long, , Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs

PLOT: A struggling, middle-aged actor/director loses his long-time girlfriend.

Still from Lemon (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lemon is an awkward formalist comedy that’s just weird enough to hold your interest, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot.

COMMENTS: Not much happens in Lemon, a low-key, lightly absurdist comedy (flirting with anti-comedy) that positions itself as a character study of a delusional, narcissistic type working on the margins of the acting profession. Brett Gelman (who also co-wrote) plays sad sack Isaac with so little expression, he makes  actors look like hams. Isaac has a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), but things are going about as well with her as they are with his stalled career. The schlub shamelessly but unconsciously projects his personal life onto the acting courses he’s teaching, where he continually sides with a pretentious actor (Michael Cera, who prepares for scenes by “exploring” colors and animals) while picking on an unassuming actress (poor Gillian Jacobs). (In one of Lemon‘s wry meta-jokes, the editor cuts off her scenes in mid-sentence, the same way that Isaac disregards her attempts to speak to him). Once outside of his petty teaching kingdom, he finds himself judged by two female casting directors who treat him like a piece of meat, but still lands an unflattering role in a commercial campaign. While on that set, he meets an African-American makeup artist (Nia Long) whom he will eventually romance, setting up the film’s only conventional comic situation when Isaac displays clueless racial insensitivity when he attends her Jamaican family’s barbecue. And that’s pretty much it; by the time the credits roll, Isaac has learned nothing and experienced no personal growth, ending up slightly worse off than when he started.

Lemon comes across as much weirder than that synopsis suggests. All of the scenes are “off” to some degree, some more than others. Isaac has his own avant-minimalist music, sometimes with operatic accompaniment, that follows him around. At one point, a man who looks like his approximate double simply walks into the class and sits beside him, saying nothing; it’s never explained. At least one flashback is played out live, without an edit, with the absent character simply walking into the room after the others depart. There is a very strange masturbation scene that seems inspired by James Lipton’s old “Actors Studio” interviews. And a sprightly singalong at a family reunion (“A Million Matzo Balls,” led by patriarchs Rhea Perlman and A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed on piano) is an out-of-place highlight.

Lemon is reminiscent of something might write in a very depressed mood. With its nearly inscrutable, yet mean, antihero, the autistic social interactions, and the jarring transitions from scene to scene, the tone rests just this side of a nightmare. It’s a movie that will have some interest to fans of uncomfortable comedy, but it’s hard to love. If nothing else, however, Lemon is notable for bringing us Michael Cera’s worst onscreen haircut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more tart than sweet, but deliciously weird nonetheless.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

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