Roughly halfway through Lemon, a Mexican nanny named Rosa (Elizabeth De Razzo) tells a story about her brother, a man who entered an “old folks home” at the age of 50. “He didn’t remember anything,” she says, “but also he didn’t have anything to remember.” It’s a prescient monologue, one that could very well apply to struggling actor Isaac (Brett Gelman), but it’s also a joke in and of itself. That becomes clear a few scenes later, when Rosa rattles off another speech — this one about her aunt — that also happens to inform the present action. Lemon, a film that’s as much about theater, performance, and narrative as it is about loneliness, routinely gives itself over to the most overused aspects of storytelling as a means of showing how art and existence are two very different things.
The emphasis on performance makes sense considering the minds behind the film. Director and co-writer Janicza Bravo studied at New York University’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School, while co-writer and star Gelman has flaunted (and relentlessly satirized) his theatrical bonafides via his Adult Swim comedy specials and frequent appearances on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast. Both clearly have a keen understanding of the unsavory, antiquated aspects of theatrical performance that too often hinder what’s still our most intimate artform, and here they brilliantly mine them for both satirical and thematic means.
Gelman’s Isaac, for example, is an acting teacher in Los Angeles, guiding his students through scenes from Chekhov and celebrating the ones who make the grandest, most self-indulgent choices. One of those students is Alex (Michael Cera), a pompous actor who impresses Gelman with his absurd, new-age approaches to character. “I’ve been using colors in my exploring,” he says, Cera’s voice sounding as if it’s echoing out of a college theater’s performance of Hedda Gabler. Once Alex’s career begins eclipsing his teacher’s, however, Isaac turns on him. That seems to be a trend in his life, wherein he consistently puts his own narrative ahead of everyone else’s, whether it’s his blind wife Ramona (Judy Greer), his sister Ruthie (Shiri Appleby, deliciously unhinged) or Cleo (Nia Long), the woman he attempts to woo after Ramona splits.
There have been been plenty of films, plays, and books about the fiction of storytelling consuming a man’s soul, but what makes Lemon special is how that sense of fiction extends to nearly every corner of the film’s aesthetic. Bravo casts several scenes in an artificial shade of yellow, the writing is often self-aware, and the performances are varied in ways that help distinguish the lonely from, well, everyone else. David Paymer’s lovelorn Dr. Gold, for example, delivers his every line as if he’s performing Clifford Odets for the cheap seats. Isaac’s sister-in-law Zelda (Hannah Heller) joylessly walks backwards in a circle to the sound of bleating horns. And the pivotal scene where Isaac and Ramona confront their floundering romance is staged with both sitting on a bed, their backs to each other, eyes staring dramatically into the distance. Emotionlessly, Gelman speaks words that could only be written — “I could hit you, I could suffocate you, I could strangle you” — before declaring, with literally no effort whatsoever, that he’s having a heart attack. “You’re not!” Ramona responds. “I am,” he says. End of scene. His life is a performance, a bad one, all taking place in his own mind.
The distance this kind of storytelling engenders might be alienating for some, as might the fact that Lemon, while brimming with emotional and psychological insight, is somewhat lacking in approachable characters until its third act. Despite the film’s sunny disposition, there is a certain chill at its heart, what with Isaac being a character that purposefully resonates as inhuman. It’s not mean-spirited, as stories exploring these topics can sometimes be, but it’s occasionally impenetrable.
What compensates for that, however, is that Lemon remains wholly original throughout, rendering old themes fresh with its bold perspective. It’s also incredibly funny, even when it’s dunking our heads into the darkness of the human psyche. After Alex has a shockingly vulgar phrase spray-painted onto his car, he tells Isaac, “It’s really dark. I’d rather not repeat it.” The same could be said for a lot of Lemon.