At some point we started to wonder if South By SouthWest wasn’t a little incestuous. Yesterday I wrote about a movie called Win It All, which was directed by Joe Swanberg, who has a bit of a creative flirtation going with Jake Johnson. Joe Swanberg also happens to write for the Netflix series Easy. Meanwhile, the writers and director of Lemon also make appearances on another Netflix series, Love. Is Netflix the meeting ground for mumblecore indie spirits?
Anyway. Lemon was written by husband-wife team Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman. Gelman has the unenviable task of starring in a film that was called Lemon because Isaac, the lead character, is a complete dud. If he was a car, you’d return him directly to the lot and tear your hair out while screaming at the manager. If you’re his girlfriend of a decade, well, you start creating distance, and then you cut and run. That’s what Ramona (Judy Greer) does; she’s only stayed as long as she has because she’s blind, and while her sight hasn’t improved, her self respect has.
The film feels like it has chapters to it. In the first chapter, we see Isaac at work. He’s a theatre teacher, where he over-praises one student, Alex,(Michael Cera) while simultaneously ripping apart another (Gillian Jacobs). Whether he identifies with Alex or is simply jealous of him I can’t divine, but we know that Isaac’s own acting career is in the toilet, almost literally (just about the only thing he’s up for is an incontinence ad). But bonus: Michael Cera, inexplicably bad hair and all, does earn some serious laughs as a super pretentious thespian who’s always “doing some animal work” or some other crazy-obnoxious thing.
The second chapter shows him among his immediate family, which is rife with drama. He’s practically the normal one there, navigating rough waters between his siblings (Martin Starr is his brother) and half-heartedly joining in when his mother (Rhea Perlman) decides it’s sing-along time (a rousing chorus of “A Million Matzoh Balls” is as memorable as it is ridiculous). This is the weirdest family dinner I’ve ever witnessed and was uncomfortably effective at making me feel vicariously bad about myself.
The third chapter focuses more on his post-break-up love life. Despite being a complete loser, he seems to have attracted the attention (or at least the pity) of the beautiful Cleo (Nia Long), whose family is nothing like his. The film makers admitted that the two families represent their own in-law struggles, though I can’t imagine having the courage to put that kind of dirty laundry up on a big screen.
Do you delight in the suffering of others? Isaac is not a redeeming character. He’s thoroughly unlikeable. But the movie itself is almost aggressively odd, from the very first shot. What kind of enjoyment can you derive from schadenfreude? And are you in the mood for something obsessively quirky, something unapologetically, erm, esoteric? These are the questions you must ask yourself before settling in to Lemon.