Written by Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman
Directed by Janicza Bravo
Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman) is a despicable, misanthropic, misogynist, narcissist. He is a struggling actor who teaches acting classes with a pretension so dense it is nauseating. The opening of the film finds his live-in girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) trying to sidestep out of their relationship and Isaac taking it in the least mature way possible. He stumbles through episodes in his life that include Passover with his almost equally acidic family. He somehow ends up in another relationship despite being a rude, crass dullard and the story sort of just ends. Isaac’s life continues to be a mire of self-pity and blame shifting.
If you came out of Lemon feeling awfully then, director Janicza Bravo would be delighted. She and partner Gelman wrote the screenplay of the film out of frustration over the schlub with a heart of gold cliche that comes up time and time again in Apatow and Apatow-adjacent movies. You know the type: unattractive on multiple levels yet ends up with the girl, and everyone loves him. A character at some point says, “There’s just something about that guy.” Bravo wants to stand up and say “What? What is there about this loser?”
Bravo’s entire aesthetic takes the awkward comedy genre, combines it with the absurdity of Tim & Eric and creates some of the most cringing cinema you could see this year. There is absolutely nothing redeemable about Isaac. When Ramona finally confronts him about the end of their relationship, he gives a deadpan response stating, “You know I could kill you.” and goes on to talk about how often men, in fits of passion, kill women who betray them. Then literally less than a beat later, breaks into the phoniest tears begging her not to leave him and stay. What Gelman manages to present here in picture perfect clarity is the overconfident pretentious idiot.
There isn’t much of a plot as the film wants to instead be a character study of Isaac and his interactions with people in his life. These are not so much relationships as they are taxing social transactions. His “mentorship” of acting students Alex and Tracy (Michael Cera & Gillian Jacobs, respectively) is not so much a way for Isaac to teach, but for him to lord his non-existence expertise over the two. Eventually, as Isaac had happened in every relationship, he is revealed as an idiot and reduces himself to the pettiest revenge.
A hint at where Isaac became this way comes in an extended Passover sequence where his parents (Rhea Perlman and Fred Melamed) and his siblings (Martin Starr and Shiri Appleby) engage in a dis-affectedly disastrous dinner. Isaac doesn’t seem quite as awful against this backdrop. However, he attends a family get-together of a woman he begins seeing and proceeds to become so unintentionally racist and thus destroy any goodwill he might have garnered.
Bravo has a made a film that attempts to be like Rick Alverson’s anti-comedy masterpieces “The Comedy” and “Entertainment.” I would argue those films are better due to the cinematography, they are touching on the same territory as “Lemon.” This is an examination of modern comedy tropes, pushing them to such an absurd extreme they make us uncomfortable and hopefully see them in a different light the next time they are presented with supposed earnestness.