Lemon” is a pithy, hilarious depiction of a fragile male trapped in adolescence and, while the comedy genre is chock-full of flicks that are a feel-good celebration of the lovable loser, this short, bitter film is anything but. It is often, in fact, a feel-bad portrait of a grown man adrift in Los Angeles after his 10-year relationship ends.
In the hands of the always-icky comedian Brett Gelman, Isaac is a hilariously misanthropic actor and acting teacher wreaking small-scale havoc among friends, family and his unfortunate acting students as he reels from his breakup from Ramona (Judy Greer) who is blind, which explains how the relationship began in the first place. But even a blind woman can see how difficult Isaac is and, as Ramona pulls away, Isaac lashes out at his acting students. In his class, we are treated to what I found to be the most hilariously detailed moments of absurdity, mainly in the person of Michael Cera, another ludicrous man basking in his own unearned glory.
With a side-parted Afro, Cera delivers an impassioned scene with fellow student Gillian Jacobs and, while both performances read as equally lame to us, Isaac praises Cera and trashes Jacobs. He begs Cera to treat us to an explanation of his acting process, and it is so gloriously idiotic. The two men enable one another in their bragging until the relationship turns sour, and it isn’t long before someone gets hit in the face with a small, pink cake.
“Lemon” is an episodic slog through Isaac’s depressing life, but each misadventure has a worthwhile comic performance to keep the viewer from giving up, even when unpleasantness periodically threatens to overcome the laughs. There are more cringe-inducing touches of grossness than I need, and it undermines the assured writing and character development in service of easy potty jokes.
Fortunately, Isaac attends a Passover Seder at the home of his parents, portrayed by Fred Melamed and Rhea Perlman. We get a break from the grossness of Isaac’s home, traded for many total absurdities at his parents’, including an extended singalong of “Lotsa Latkes” and a bizarre sister-in-law.
This gathering exemplifies the concept that “all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” There are so many different kinds of people in this film that are really specifically written if you get past their allover “quirkiness.” On an excruciating photo shoot, Isaac meets and attempts to woo a friendly, incredibly tolerant woman of color (portrayed by Nia Long) who inexplicably goes on a few dates with him.
This leads us to another carefully peopled family gathering for Isaac to ruin, and it was then that the fact “Lemon” was written and directed by Janicza Bravo, a black female who is also married to Gelman, both blew my mind and also made complete sense.
Male comedians seems to love to write excruciatingly humiliating vehicles for themselves, which inevitably feature them looking scary in a pair of underpants, and “Lemon” appears to check all those boxes, too. However, this film was not written by its male star. It was written and directed not just by a woman, but by a woman who is actually partnered with the underwear-clad man-child in real life. That perspective subverts the whole experience, and deepens the meaning of this short and not at all sweet dark comedy.
“Lemon” is currently available to rent.