Comedian Brett Gelman has made a name for himself as bombastic, larger than life characters, including himself in Adult Swim’s Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends. Now Gelman is front and center in Janicza Bravo’s feature film Lemon, which Gelman co-wrote with the director. Lemon is an unusual, abrasive work of art that defies Gelman’s regular persona with a quiet, tragic performance that emphasizes the malaise that has gripped his character. Janicza Bravo’s film isn’t a crowd-pleaser by any means, but it’s a fascinating character study of an individual stuck in neutral, employing a wry, subtle sense of humor that relies more on situations and gestures more than big punchlines.
Isaac (Gelman) is stuck in a rut in just about every way imaginable. He coaches a duo of actors (played by Michael Cera and Gillian Jacobs), though his own career as a performer is floundering. Sometimes Isaac goes out on auditions for various commercial work, such as a print ad where he’s the face of Hepatitis C. In his personal life, Isaac is finding his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) is also going nowhere fast. Isaac also has a family that is in constant disarray, including his mother (Rhea Perlman) and father (Fred Melamed) as well as his pregnant sister Ruthie (Shiri Appleby). Despite whatever is circling around him at any given moment, Isaac is incapable of putting his life into gear and moving forward.
The reason that Lemon works on its own unusual wavelength is the combination of Brett Gelman’s insular performance and the sharp direction of Janicza Bravo. Gelman internalizes much of Isaac’s struggle, and yet the actor is able to convey the escalating unease of the character without uttering a word. As the film progresses and you see more and more of Isaac’s unlikable behavior, Gelman is able to bring a lot to the character without ever being show or flashing in the slightest. Brett Gelman is given ample help in the film with great supporting cast, which also includes Martin Starr and Nia Long, all of whom are people that seem to exist in the real world while Isaac simply lives in his own devolving world.
Janicza Bravo brings a shape visual style to Lemon, which features some excellently blocked shots that utilize every aspect of the frame. Few directors today, and especially on such a limited budget, are able to make the most of every shot be it the way in which the actors are framed or the startling use of color. Lemon isn’t a comedy that is overflowing with big laughs and sharp dialogue. Instead it’s a slowly building uncomfortable form of humor that relies on Isaac’s inability to be adequate in any regard, especially in social situations. Every aspect of that subtlety that is the sense of humor of Lemon is amplified by the way in which Bravo assembles the visual style of the film that requires you to pay close attention in order to discover the layers to the cringe-worthy humor on display.
Lemon doesn’t take the easy road in any aspect of its being. It’s a confrontational film willing to put the audience in a series of uncomfortable situations that only grow with each passing moment. In a lot of ways, Lemon reminds me of the borderline anti-comedy films of Rick Alverson, such as The Comedy and Entertainment, that play against the expectations of their comedic leads. This isn’t a raucous comedy that is going to play to a wide audience and it never even attempts to do so. Lemon is a visually sharp, thematically quiet work of ugly comedy featuring an incredibly ugly lead character. In the wrong hands, Lemon could be a repellant work. Thankfully, Janicza Bravo has a deft touch that makes the most of its abrasive style.