Trope-following ‘Lemon’ leaves a sour taste

In many quality films, it would appear that nothing happens at all to the unaccustomed viewer, and then the ending is the key to the movie. The finale is the filter through which to view all that preceded it: this filter unveils the themes, messages, and morals of seemingly aimless films.

Another category of movies is those with plots that provide no revelation, but rich characters, snappy dialogue and an affecting mood are enough to make them memorable. “Lemon,” the debut feature of Janicza Bravo, has none of these qualities.

The film stars Brett Gelman (“Eagleheart”) as a misanthropic failed actor turned acting teacher, named Isaac Lachmann. Isaac is — in no uncertain terms — a loser. He is stagnant and alone in his 40’s, experiencing a midlife crisis.

His blind girlfriend (Judy Greer, “Arrested Development”) has left him for a more vital
relationship, and the movie begins with Isaac contemplating how to get his life back on track. The rest of the film meanders through a loose association of scenes depicting the acting class Isaac teaches, Isaac’s apparently dysfunctional family and Isaac’s attempting at wooing a makeup artist played by Nia Long (“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). The only common thread between these scenes is a vague sense of absurdity that rarely results in serious laughs.

At one point in time, “Lemon” may have been an original film. Before Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware and Todd Solondz and Wes Anderson, the idea of the socially awkward, cold, emotionally repressed middle aged misanthrope may have been a novel concept.

Even today, there are variations on this trope that can still strike chords with audiences. Emotional crises are obviously not foreign to viewers, and a well written narrative will always find an audience. However, there is nothing original about “Lemon” because there is no heart at its core.

The film is heavily stylized by Bravo, creating scenes that sometimes are quite interesting. But style alone cannot carry a movie. Indeed, Brett Gelman’s Isaac is intended to be the heart of the movie, yet he lacks any heart of his own.

Isaac is a caricature. He is an amalgam of every awkward, stoic middle-aged loser that has
appeared in cinema, as if to heighten the comedy of his life while only flattening any
dimension he could have had.

Isaac runs with an ungainly, flapping gait. He yells to himself on a whim. He wears only one blank expression, willfully oblivious to any others. He is disagreeable, in a way that is supposed to sympathetic but in reality, is just sad. In any given scene, he is a statue, erect and unflinching, and the novelty wears off quickly.

Stylistically, the film is inconsistent. Heavily influenced by filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Bravo tries to create humor through absurd direction. She frames wide shots and symmetric scenes and captures her actors in profile. While these elements were designed to create a deadpan, absurd humor, the humor rarely hits.

Much of this failure stems from the film’s editing and Bravo’s direction of her actors. Anderson’s humor works not only because of his shot composition but also because of how he directs his actors and edits his gags. His dialogue is quick, like the Coen Brothers’ dialogue, and the actors are unflinching.

Bravo is not quite on that level yet, but it would not be surprising if her next feature hits that mark. The unrefined potential in Bravo’s direction could be something quite special and unique if she is paired with a stronger script and takes more risks.

With any misanthropic narrative, much of the humor is most effective when it is daring, cynical and truly grotesque. The humor ought to stun audiences. Bravo’s humor is simply too safe to
be memorable.

Despite these shortcomings, there are some enjoyable aspects in the movie. The cast is as
dynamic and as amusing as they can be with the script. In one perfectly absurd scene at Isaac’s family Passover Seder, the entire family is framed in a single shot as they all attempt to sing 10 verses of “One Million Matzo Balls.”

Other high points include several scenes in Isaac’s acting workshop, where Isaac comically directs his two actors played by Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”) and Gillian Jacobs (“Community”) through a ridiculous adaptation of “The Seagull.” Cera’s character is perfectly
arrogant, spouting faux-artistic gibberish in an effective satire of artistic culture.

Isaac views his actors with contradictory pride and contempt as he copes with the possibility of being outshone by them. This character thread is the only truly compelling thread in the film, but it is unfortunately dropped by the end.

Ultimately, the script never makes anything of Gelman’s character, and viewers cannot help but grow bored with the film. Bravo makes a gamble by exchanging depth for generic absurdity, and it simply does not pay off. Nonetheless, Janicza Bravo will certainly be a director to look out for in future years. “Lemon” is currently playing at the Plaza Theatre.