Lemon’s tonal inconsistency ultimately overshadows its faint, offbeat appeal.
Idiosyncrasy is no more an inherent virtue than it is a vice, but don’t tell that to Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman. Together, the married couple wrote the darkly comedic oddity Lemon, a film that marks Bravo’s feature-length directorial debut and a rare starring role for screwball character actor Gelman. But while Bravo displays a Wes Anderson-like sense of vivid and symmetrical mise-en-scène, Gelman’s turn as the dysfunctional failed actor, Isaac, is murky and off-kilter. With an impressive supporting cast of zany indie darlings, Lemon has the potential to distill transcendence from the miasma of debilitating neuroses and bad luck that swirls around its principal character. Instead, the film is content to wallow in its own weirdness.
Part of Lemon’s problem lies in its mean-spirited handling of Isaac, whose emotional wounds are often pathetically self-inflicted. Outside circumstances certainly encroach upon his futile pursuit of happiness as well, but deep down, the film presents the existentialist notion that one creates one’s own reality, and in this way, Isaac is a poster-child for Sartrean bad faith. As he approaches middle age, Isaac’s show business career prospects have shriveled into nothing more than gigs in adult diaper ads or Hep C awareness campaigns. He makes ends meet by teaching an acting class that also serves as an opportunity for him to condescend to the perseverant, irrepressible Tracy (Gillian Jacobs) and to ingratiate himself to the haughty, pedantic Alex (Michael Cera). Isaac’s blind, career-minded girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer), shrugs away from him whenever he tries to touch her, and his overbearing family treats him like the disappointing loser he increasingly believes himself to be.
When jealousy prompts him to torpedo an already forced friendship with Alex, who has landed a notable role abroad, Isaac’s mental stability further unravels as Ramona gradually ends their relationship as though tugging slowly at a Band-Aid. Isaac stumbles into a string of awkward dates with Cleo (Nia Long), despite his clumsy focus on the interracial aspect of their tenuous courtship, and his eventual bungling of the lone glimmer of hope that she represents seems like a foregone conclusion throughout. Despite one sharp, subversive gag about sunscreen, Lemon doesn’t have much to say about race, but, then again, it’s not trying to say much of anything. Instead, it presents an emotionally stunted man who’s only able to briefly lash out in bizarre ways (a halfhearted bear-hug-fight with Alex, for instance) before once again acquiescing to the mundanity of his existence.
Lemon’s tonal inconsistency ultimately overshadows its faint, offbeat appeal, a problem that’s compounded by its similarities to other cinematic misfits. Gelman plays Isaac as so darkly repressed, reduced to a muttering milquetoast in the presence of his overbearing family, that it’s difficult not to recall Adam Sandler’s pudding-hoarding Barry in Punch-Drunk Love—although Isaac’s attempts at romantic connection receive far less payoff. In its most oddball comedic moments, the film taps into a hint of Napoleon Dynamite’s quaint wackiness. And its attempts to balance levity and wretchedness result in an overwhelming sense of contempt for its central character, which recalls the work of Todd Solondz at his worst. There’s even a Farrelly-Brothers-esque toilet gag in the film’s coda that, much like the rest of Lemon, is neither funny nor grotesque but instead just vaguely unpleasant.