Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Directed by Janicza Bravo

Aug 16, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Some jerk once told me that "all humor is based in pain", a notion which later caused my high school sociology teacher to shout me down in front of the class when I parroted it. As an adult, I can confirm with confidence that she was wrong in general, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the case of Brett Gelman, whose comedy definitely subsists almost entirely on discomfort. No matter the specifics of the character he's playing, there is never a pull to be liked; the humor always comes from the pain and awkwardness caused by his characters' utter loathsomeness. Sometimes he's inflicting suffering, sometimes he's suffering himself, but either way, it hurts.

With Lemon, Gelman teams up with real-life wife Janicza Bravo for their first feature film after a successful (if politically fraught) run on Adult Swim and a handful of sharp, artful short films, respectively. (Bravo also directed the remarkable "Juneteenth" episode of Atlanta.) The results are promising, but mixed. As Isaac, Gelman plays an all-but-failed actor slipping headfirst into a midlife downward spiral, and watching him slip is funny and painful, but maybe not quite enough of either to stick to the viewer's ribs.

That said, both Gelman and the rest of the cast deliver the material with perfect unlikeability. Judy Greer, as Isaac's long-suffering girlfriend Ramona, manages to make even a blind woman stuck with a shitty boyfriend seem like an asshole; Michael Cera is deliciously unsympathetic as a pompous, globetrotting actor. Nia Long, playing Isaac's new love interest Cleo, is more or less the film's moral center, but the viewer is even more confused about her presence in Isaac's story than she seems to be. She seems like something cross-projected from another film, though to be fair, that seems like part of the point.

In its best moments, Lemon delivers sharp jabs at toxic masculinity, urban pomposity, and white fragility that are funny enough that you almost forget that they're making a point, and Isaac's interactions with Cleo's family at a backyard barbecue are vintage Gelman, poking at racial tensions with a sharp stick. More than anything, it is to Lemon's credit that it functions as an exceptionally cruel parody of the "loser white guy's redemption" storyline so beloved by the Sundance crowd, a subgenre long overdue for a skewering.

Lemon would have made a stellar short, but even at its relatively brief running time, it doesn't quite cohere or resonate at feature length. That said, there's a ton of increasingly focused talent on display here. There are undoubtedly great things in store from both Bravo and Gelman; for now, though, they've started with just "good."


Author rating: 6.5/10

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