A grating protagonist alone does not a bad film make, but the episodic, unsatisfying Lemon revels in purposeful nails-on-a-chalkboard unlikability.
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Isaac (Brett Gelman), a struggling actor and stage director, spins out of control after his girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer), leaves him. Another film would make the ensuing tale a mope-fest, but Lemon veers toward strident weirdness with minimal payoff. Isaac — a platonic ideal of the pseudo-hipster schlub, balding, bearded and afflicted with unflattering 1980s glasses — antagonizes nearly everyone he interacts with, a habit that makes 83 minutes go by very slowly. Your enjoyment of the film is likely to be highly dependent on your tolerance for the comedy of discomfort; fans of the prickly humor seen on Adult Swim (where Gelman cut his teeth) should be well served. (Also, fans of literal toilet humor: A scene of Isaac farting loudly while he sits on the stool for what feels like ages is chuckle-inducing at the basest level, but more likely to lead to eyerolls.)
Some of the uncomfortable moments at least play out with a certain amount of formal daring. Scenes in which Isaac coaches his actors Alex (an impressively poodle-haired Michael Cera) and Tracy (Gillian Jacobs) are starkly staged against a black backdrop, and the jarring quality of their monologues and the set lends a lightly experimental quality. The theater feels nightmarish, seen only in glimpses as the actors express fragmented frustration in the dark. Director Janicza Bravo also tends to cut away at unexpected moments; many scenes in Lemon are either longer or shorter than we expect them to be.
Bravo is married to Gelman, and the couple co-wrote the screenplay. Some of the most cringe-inducing moments in a film filled with them deal with race: At one point, flirting with Cleo (Nia Long), a woman of color who seems far too good for him, Isaac says, “My sister has a black son. He’s 6.” Bravo (a woman in an interracial relationship herself) might be making a statement about just how tricky it can be to navigate these issues, and how often white people miss their marks. But the comeuppance Lemon has in store for Isaac doesn’t really make up for the callousness of a line like that.
Ramona and Cleo are obviously presented as being above Isaac’s bullshit, and the film would have benefited from fleshing out these two characters more. (Ramona is blind, a condition that feels too much like just another of the film’s quirks, especially given how little time she’s on screen.) At its core, Lemon is a sendup of masculine insecurity and pretension — subjects that deserve plenty of satire but aren’t necessarily fun to witness. But if you’re watching an ironic depiction of an immature man behaving abhorrently, at the end of the day you’re still watching an immature man behaving abhorrently.