Beyond deadpan, beyond drollness, beyond absurdity, lies Lemon, a “comedy” so uniquely off-kilter that it’s never exactly clear when, or why, one should laugh—and when one does, it often occurs long after a given gag.
The feature directorial debut of Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote her wackadoo script with star (and real-life husband) Brett Gelman, it’s a true curiosity that defies easy explanation, much less categorization. Operating in sync with its protagonist, a middle-aged Californian named Isaac (Gelman), the film is at once wholly obvious and yet completely and utterly perplexing, a contradiction that’s merely one of the many ways in which it leaves one staring at the screen in dumbfounded amazement, both at its convention-defiling bravado and its indiscriminate strangeness.
As its post-credits sequence underlines in typically pokerfaced fashion, Lemon’s title refers to Isaac, a balding, bearded individual whose social skills are non-existent, whose smugness is considerable, and whose estrangement and loneliness—and resultant resentment and anger—is palpable.
Isaac is introduced via a favorite Bravo composition: a waist-high semi-circular camera pan around his shabby apartment, which ultimately settles on him lying on his couch, decked out in full-body pajamas and his neck tilted severely backwards. His pants are soaked with urine, and upon awakening and noticing this indiscretion, he touches his soiled crotch and then smells his fingers before frantically trying to remove his pants before his girlfriend of ten years, Ramona (Judy Greer)—who’s lying beside him on the couch, the camera soon reveals—awakens.
No such luck for Isaac, who subsequently responds to Ramona standing up and asking questions by shoving her back onto the couch, a dejected look on her face.
The frizzy-haired Ramona is blind, which still doesn’t quite explain why she’s with a weirdo like Isaac. And, as it turns out, she isn’t for long, as Lemon has her flee their abode on a business trip (she sells blood-vacuuming medical equipment). While she’s gone, Isaac teaches his acting class, during which two students – star pupil Alex (Michael Cera, sporting curly hair divided into two big puffs) and oft-criticized Tracy (Gillian Jacobs) – workshop a play about a man trying to cling to his lost love. That work unsubtly mirrors Isaac’s own feelings about Ramona, and eager to validate himself, Isaac effusively praises Alex and his method of preparing for roles by thinking of “colors” and channeling “animals” (gorillas, panthers), all while maligning Tracy for her hollow insincerity. Such duality extends to Bravo’s staging, which is at once formally immaculate (Cera and Tracy’s relationship in the frame expertly echoes their emotional dynamics) and yet so deliberately awkward and stilted that it lends the action a satiric edge.
Isaac wants to be friends with Alex, but the latter’s professional good fortune rankles him, since Isaac is also an aspiring actor whose pallid complexion and morose expressions now make him primarily best-suited for Hepatitis C and adult-diaper ad campaigns. Things take the first of many sudden, drastic turns when Isaac spray-paints “White Nigger” on Alex’s car and then, at a dinner together, threatens him with a knife. It’s the start of a downward spiral for Isaac, and one that only gets deeper and darker when he attends Passover dinner at the home of his parents (Fred Melamed and Rhea Perlman) along with his pregnant sister Ruth (Shiri Appleby) – who has an adopted African-American son and a vicious nanny (Elizabeth De Razzo) – his arrogant brother (Martin Starr) and his so-unhappy-she’s-mute wife (Kayla Harrity), and family friend Dr. Gold (David Paymer), who’s suffering through a nasty divorce and tells Isaac he should seek contentment by “switching things around” to achieve a “clean slate.” That gathering is an unending string of miserablist tableaus, and culminates with everyone singing “A Million Matzoh Balls” around the living room piano, their gestures alternately animated and inert but their shared discontent unmistakable.
Structured as a triptych, Lemon next has Isaac search for new love with Cleo (Nia Long), the make-up artist whom he first met on an uncomfortable photo shoot overseen by wine-guzzling Simone (Megan Mullally). For reasons that make little sense, Cleo agrees to go out with Isaac, and then chooses to go out with him again – this time having him over for dinner, with her son present. Not realizing that he’s a stalker who calls her from outside her window, she even lets him join her at a backyard barbeque attended by cousins, uncles, and her stroke-stricken aunt (The Jefferson and 227’s Marla Gibbs). There, he smokes weed, talks about welfare and African-American incarceration rates, and – compelled by hallucinations – tries to wheel Gibbs’ infirm aunt down the street, much to Cleo’s chagrin. Oh, and did I also mention that, shortly before that, he allows his neighbor’s pet birds to die?
Mildly reminiscent of the comedy-as-agony works of Rick Alverson (The Comedy, Entertainment), Lemon remains, from top to bottom, a legitimately baffling whatsit, not because one can’t grasp that Bravo and Gelman are crafting an uncanny portrait of forlorn isolation and yearning, but because their means of achieving those ends are so doggedly peculiar. Set to a score that segues on a dime between religious choral singing, ominous organs and bouncy woodwinds, the film moves to the beat of its own volatile rhythms. Long silences are punctuated by sudden incidents involving violence and wailing. Conversations veer wildly between topics and feature abrupt mid-sentence interruptions. And people behave in a manner that’s always left of center, be it Cera’s hilariously pretentious pronunciations (“They had no mone-eh”) or Gelman’s litany of blank glares, including one – overwhelming his face after a date with Cleo that culminated with a kiss – that’s startling in its inexplicability. With tormented hurt and fury lurking beneath his stoic weirdo exterior, he’s comes off as a psychopathic rain man.
No sane person would likely claim that Lemon is funny in a straightforward way – especially considering the gloomy shroud in which it wraps itself. And at times, its ugly abnormality feels like a dare (go ahead, walk out!) directed at audience members annoyed at the lack of first-the-set-up, then-the-punchline jokes. Yet there’s something transfixing about the lengths to which it goes to evoke dead-eyed desperation and resignation, and to generate – courtesy of Gelman’s lead performance – creepy black humor from Isaac’s preternatural loserdom. Those with a hunger for the eccentric will find it a “lemon” of a bleakly bizarre, self-conscious sort.