‘Lemon’ feels like a million other movies in that it’s another indie quirkfest about an awkward guy awkwardly having a hard time finding his place in an awkward world. It’s even set in Los Angeles so that awkwardness can involve show business. However, it works better than most because writer/star Brett Gelman and director Janicza Bravo share a genuine surrealist sensibility that elevates their mundane character comedy into something far more interesting and bizarre.
Gelman stars as Isaac, an out-of-work forty-something actor slowly discovering just how much he’s failed in life. He’s married to a blind woman played by Judy Greer and together they live in an apartment so drab that hopelessness hangs in the air before a character speaks a word. When Isaac does speak, his voice hits with a level of clear diction that could only come from a pretentious actor. He makes his living through a series of humiliating commercials and teaching an acting class that includes students played by Michael Cera (equally as pretentious as his teacher, yet successful) and Gillian Jacobs (a young woman on a slow road to failure who’s car keeps getting inexplicably stolen). Isaac’s wife leaves him early on, but he finds a new romantic interest in a makeup artist played by Nia Long. She sticks by him almost out of pity, and since she’s also African American, that kicks off a whole new realm of awkward interaction. Bring on the brightly colored cringe!
The film unfolds with ragged and discomforting rhythms. It looks oddly beautiful, which only adds to the strangeness of the endeavor. The jagged series of events that makes up the plot bounces along with a sense of whimsy. However, all those aesthetic tics and tricks from director Bravo (who is also married to Gelman in real life, adding to the oddity of the final product) only provide a sheen to a film that revels in discomfort and failure. The few happy moments here are mostly the result of self-delusion. The characters are all broken and despicable. That’s played for dark laughs by an impressive crop of players. Gelman’s open sore of a man is painful to watch, especially when he believes in himself. Cera is hysterical as a walking slab of self-satisfaction. Nia Long provides some flashing moments of light in the film, but typically in ways that will misdirect toward more uncomfortable darkness. There are two family dinners in the movie that reveal these two lovers’ pasts and both paint a pained picture of dysfunction that’s both cartoonishly exaggerated and depressingly relatable.
‘Lemon’ doesn’t stretch for any cozy sense of redemption in its bizarre journey. The film is about failure and pain, as well the ways we inflict them on ourselves and use them to poison others. That’s hardly a fun theme, but the movie’s acidic comedy and occasionally beautiful cinematic flourishes make for a delightful exploration of that particular brand of darkness. The movie is harshly true and playfully comedic. It’s a mixture of Adult Swim anti-comedy and Charlie Kaufman-style surrealism of deeply personal pain. While ‘Lemon’ certainly isn’t perfect and occasionally strains attention spans with its unwavering commitment to the twisted tone, Bravo and Gelman emerge as a fascinating filmmaking team with a unique voice. Hopefully they get a chance to collaborate again soon. They’ve made a wonderfully bizarre oddity, but are clearly capable of something special.