Lemon

| November 23, 2017

If you’ve wondered if it’s possible to cringe yourself to death, Lemon, directed by Janicza Bravo and co-written by Bravo and Brett Gelman, is the indie comedy-drama for you! I’m writing to you from the afterlife, and I’m here to let you know that I died uneasily, curled up with my knees to my chest, as Lemon’s credits rolled. This was not a peaceful death, but it was sweet release.

I first heard of Lemon way back in August when a guy I was seeing suggested we watch it together, so when I had the ability to review it—and therefore make him revisit the film with me—I jumped on it. Neither of us could have predicted how uncomfortable an experience this would be. On the surface, Lemon appears to be an indie comedy with a promising cast—Brett Gelman is Isaac Lachmann, a struggling actor and teacher whose life is predictably stuck in second gear; Judy Greer is Ramona, his equally morose and despairing girlfriend; Michael Cera is Alex, Isaac’s mildly successful, overly-affected student whose success makes him a target for Isaac’s animosity; Gillian Jacobs is Tracy, another one of Isaac’s student, who bears the brunt of his vindictive and petty criticism in class. Going into Lemon, you might truly expect to sit down and watch another quirky comedy about a sad man’s life in Los Angeles, but what you get instead is a perfectly functioning, impeccably constructed train that is mercilessly hurtling towards the edge of a cliff.

When Lemon begins in Isaac and Ramona’s living room, Isaac’s world has already fallen to pieces. He’s struggling to find work as an actor, his girlfriend of ten years is repulsed by his touch, and his first instinct in the morning is to scratch-and-sniff his own crotch. This is a character study of a man whose life has hit rock-bottom so spectacularly that even his chiropractor, Dr. Gold (David Paymer), urges him to make some kind of change. Though Dr. Gold is adamant that it’s not too late for Isaac, it almost certainly is. A man who responds to his partner’s decision to break up by replying with “I could hit you, I could suffocate you, I could strangle you, I could cut you up and put you in a bag and throw you in a hole in the woods” is a man who is far, far beyond the point of no return.

I suppose that it’s possible some viewers might feel a little empathy for Isaac, but there seems to be no drive or urgency in him. He acts because he has been acting. He pursues Cleo (Nia Long), a stylist he meets on the set of a hepatitis-C awareness campaign because he has been dumped and cannot be alone. He attends his family’s Passover Seder and sits and vacantly sings along to “A Million Matzoh Balls” because that is what he has done and will do for his entire life. Isaac is capable, it seems, of experiencing only anger, jealousy, vague embarrassment, and a lack of situational awareness. He is also capable of reaching into a toilet full of his own diarrhea to retrieve his dropped cell phone, but this is even less impressive, somehow, than the jealousy that seems to drive him for most of the film.

If there is one redeeming aspect of Lemon, it is its visual and narrative neatness. There were several points in my initial viewing that I found myself paying more attention to the cinematography than to the actual events unfolding on-screen, but I don’t think this is a failing. It is incredibly obvious, from the theatrical dialogue to the staging and blocking, that Bravo has a background in playwriting and stage directing. Though Lemon seems to be the story of a cast of miserable characters, it is visually joyful and quirky and mannered in a way that makes all of its discomfort (and disgust) worthwhile.

Lemon is available now on DVD from Magnolia Entertainment.

The DVD release includes deleted scenes, interviews with Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman, and the theatrical trailer.

About the Author:

Peyton Brunet is a fourth-year double major in English and Media & Cinema Studies at DePaul University in Chicago with a passion for horror, The Simpsons, and monstrous women. She has also been published in her high school literary magazine (which she edited for three years, thank you very much).
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