Every element of Janicza Bravo’s Lemon has been carefully engineered to render it a cult item. Symmetrical compositions reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s cinema either pin the characters against walls and isolate them in vast pockets of negative space or claustrophobically squeeze them together in the center of the frame to emphasize essentially the same points: that communication is an impossible and perhaps even retrograde expectation among our species, and that art with an active, coherent emotional purpose is antiquated. Trapped in their own orbits with a derivative designer aesthetic, the characters deliver often nonsensical dialogue that seems to have been culled together from hundreds of absurdist monologues.
Self-absorption is Bravo’s focus, though—as in other smug and mock-ironic comedies—it’s a topic that’s less examined than indulged. When Isaac (Brett Gelman) implores a student of his acting class, Tracy (Gillian Jacobs), to connect on stage with her co-star, Alex (Michael Cera), we’re aware that Lemon is diagnosing its own sense of disconnection. Bravo is also certainly aware of the irony that Tracy is a breath of tangibly human air among a gallery of shrill stereotypes who discount her. Isaac—who’s in the process of losing his blind girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer), and whose own acting career is going nowhere—relishes the control he has in the classroom, and lavishes his praise on Alex, a similarly distaff and pretentious male who’s a world onto himself.
Isaac’s an embodiment of white-male entitlement and self-loathing. In Lemon’s opening scene, we see a documentary on a television in which an African woman describes the patriarchal atrocities through which she’s lived, as Bravo’s camera pans away from the TV across a drab living room to reveal Isaac asleep on a couch. Waking up, he takes stock of his crotch and sniffs his hands like a primate. The sequence persuasively suggests that Isaac’s problems are meaningless in the context of true suffering. Isaac has a supportive Jewish family to give him money while he fails at acting and indulges his petty tyrannies. A racial thread continues to run through the film, as Isaac spray-paints a disgusting epithet on Alex’s car that would appear to be inspired by one of Norman’s Mailer’s more controversial essays.
Bravo, a woman of color, uses racially charged jokes in a fashion that’s similar to that of the over-compensating white-male hipsters she’s theoretically parodying. Isaac attempts to woo an African-American woman, Cleo (Nia Long), making embarrassing references to her skin color. Cleo never says anything in recourse, kindly weathering Isaac’s crassness. Cleo’s behavior is initially resonant, as one assumes that she’s accustomed to the come-ons of pitiful white dudes and is trying to get through her interaction with Isaac as painlessly as possible. But why, then, invite this man over to her home to meet her son? Such a development is merely a conceit as well as a balm to defuse the potential tension of Isaac’s behavior, in the tradition of many American comedies that use racist remarks for a patina of outrageousness without truly interrogating racial ignorance. Cleo’s a good sport and if she can roll with Isaac’s behavior then we, by implication, should as well.
Isaac is the film’s insurmountable liability. Surrounding the studiously charmless Gelman with a variety of warm, talented, and squandered actors is surely one of the film’s many purposefully alienating devices, but to what end? Isaac is derived in part from the losers at the center of Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite and Rick Alverson’s The Comedy and Entertainment, but he lacks their dwarfed emotional stature. In Entertainment, one was allowed to sense the human being that lurked underneath a crustacean’s shell of cruelty, while Isaac’s a collection of affectations. It’s meant to be funny, for instance, when Isaac threatens to kill Ramona, or when he chugs a glass of milk while psychotically gazing off into a corner of Cleo’s home.
Partially obscured by ugly square glasses and a wooly beard, Gelman’s face gives you nothing apart from whatever broadly foregrounded emotion the actor’s playing. Once again, this obstinate dearth of nuance is intentional and explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue, when a film director, Simone (Megan Mullally), says to Isaac, “I think you’re thinking too much about how you see your own face, when you need to be thinking about what other people see when they look at your face.” The filmmaker’s absolutely correct, causing us to wonder, and not for the first time, why we’re watching Lemon. Surely, there are more pleasurable ways to affirm our boutique street cred.