Brett Gelman, left, and Nia Long in Lemon.
You’d certainly be forgiven for overlooking Lemon in whatever lineup of Quirky Indie Comedies With Dysfunctional Male Leads recommendation list it winds up in on Netflix. The premise on paper feels utterly unremarkable: An out-of-work actor, pushing 40, begins to realize his life is a failure. Commence awkward flailing. But if you are familiar with the work of writer-director Janicza Bravo, who, in addition to multiple shorts, has the beloved “Juneteenth” episode of Atlanta under her belt, then you know that there will be nothing shambling about her debut feature film. Through her work with actors like Brett Gelman (her frequent collaborator and Lemon co-writer, as well as her husband) and Michael Cera, Bravo has become both a keen observer of the absurdities of American racial divides and an unlikely voice of broken white masculinity. Her debut feature is abundant proof that she is capable of turning garden-variety awkwardness into baroque exercises in squirm.
Guided by an original score by Heather Christian that seems to be preparing us for a small apocalypse, Lemon opens in the home of Isaac (Gelman) and his longtime girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer), who also happens to be blind. When the camera turns on them, they’re almost undetectable at first, their earth-toned bathrobes camouflaged against the sofa that they’re beached on in impossibly uncomfortable sleeping positions. Somehow, we get the impression that this is hardly an abnormal morning for these young lovers. Their modest Los Angeles apartment is an energy sinkhole so lethal it later appears to kill small animals.
Ramona isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, but the film’s dark center and titular dud of a human is Isaac, a balding, rigidly postured pillar of neuroses who speaks with the crisp diction of a serial killer or failed actor. We know for sure he is at least the latter. He’s clearly desperately lonely but incapable of intuitive human interaction. He makes ends meet doing humiliating commercial work and teaching a capital-A Acting workshop, where he conducts ludicrous scene studies with Michael Cera’s Alex (whom he irrationally loves) and Gillian Jacobs’s Tracy (whom he irrationally hates).
Jacobs is great as a hapless wannabe starlet obviously early in the years-long process of having her dreams crushed (a running bit about her car continually getting lost or stolen is at one point deemed so worthless that the scene cuts itself off mid-sentence). But I have to side with Isaac here: Cera’s Alex is uproarious and perfect, a preening, deeply self-serious actor, smoking cigarettes Frenchly while his inexplicable perm rises from atop his head. He inspires obsession in Isaac because he is exactly like Isaac, if Isaac were successful. It could be tempting to call Cera’s performance ridiculous, as meticulously tuned to a specific frequency of weirdness as he was in his turn in the current season of Twin Peaks. But every tick and inflection and slightly off pronunciation is all too real, mining every absurdity of the acting world with no need for embellishment.
After Ramona leaves Isaac, he quickly falls for a makeup artist named Cleo (Nia Long), who is far too functional for him, but takes some kind of odd pity on him for the duration of two and a half dates. It’s Isaac’s newfound attraction to Cleo that spurs Lemon’s subtle and well-observed second life as a kind of article of cultural studies, absent of any messaging or moralizing and fueled by killer details. An extended visit with Isaac’s family is like being thrown into the deep end of the moneyed, Jewish Angeleno swimming pool, and includes a cornucopia of obnoxiousness from Shiri Appleby, Martin Starr, and Rhea Perlman as Isaac’s mother (Perlman barking at her housekeeper about how thinly vegetables should be sliced — “half” — feels like it must have been plucked out of somebody’s life). It feels like it goes on for five years, but that’s kind of the point. The sequence is mirrored, late in the film, with a family barbeque Cleo takes Isaac to. Refreshingly, Bravo doesn’t paint the black family (who we are introduced to with subtitles identifying a long procession of cousins, sisters, and aunties) as particularly more functional or virtuous than Isaac’s family, just a different mode of occasionally alienating chaos.
Lemon does not end happily for Isaac, who finishes out its final moments in a horrendously scatological sequence that feels unnecessary after all the more internal horrors we’ve just endured. In discussing her and Gelman’s development of the film, Bravo has said that she is more interested in the state of failure than finding a silver lining or escaping from it. That sensibility has fueled her short work, but a feature would seem to beg for more resolution. But Lemon feels fully realized and purposeful without one; it’s the work of a filmmaker who has been honing her own jarring, idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and character for years. As a debut feature, it feels auspicious; as a snapshot of a masculine emergency, it feels timeless.