The brilliance of Janicza Bravo’s Lemon is clear juxtaposed against another IFF Boston pick – the Alison Brie-Aubrey Plaza vehicle The Little Hours. Both films play in an absurdist sandbox, boosted by stacked casts in the vein of Wet Hot American Summer. Both have ties to the L.A. alternative comedy scene and directly reflect the sensibilities of their respective stars, Brett Gelman and Plaza. These prima-facie similarities notwithstanding, The Little Hours’s derivative, juvenile attempts at absurdist comedy shone a bright light upon Bravo’s wholly unique, original, and stylish Lemon.
Lemon is the odd Wes Anderson pastiche – it brings to mind The Royal Tenenbaums in particular – that quickly develops its own essence, not least because it unexpectedly uses its Andersonian formalism and quirk to examine familial psychosis.
And who better to be at the center of a film about psychosis than Bravo’s husband, the delightfully unhinged comedian, Brett Gelman. Gelman plays ‘crazy’ well, with regularity and great relish. Here, he plays Isaac, an aging acting coach and commercial actor whose wife (Judy Greer) is not-so-subtly cheating on him. He’s obsessed with one of his pupils, Alex (played by Michael Cera, in perhaps his funniest performance to date), aggressively insinuating himself into Alex’s life whenever possible.
The film deals with the unraveling of Isaac’s life and mind as it becomes ever more obvious that his relationship is over and his acting career is kaput. Throughout, Gelman plays Isaac with a fierce, scary intensity. At a photoshoot (run by the great Megan Mullally), Isaac awkwardly asks for (and somehow receives) the telephone number of Cleo (Nia Long), a pretty makeup artist. Their relationship develops from there, and while Isaac never does anything explicitly villainous, it’s difficult not to fear for Cleo’s safety until the very end.
What is wonderful about Lemon is that it keeps that darkness close to its chest until about the halfway mark. For the first forty-five minutes or so, it’s just an oddly strange bit of Wes Andersonian twee, full of pastel colors and long panning shots and symmetrical imagery. As the story develops, however, you begin to realize that while it’s not made explicit, Isaac is completely deranged – as are the people who surround him.
The most inspired sequence in Lemon comes a substantial ways into the film when Isaac attends his parents’ Passover Seder. We meet Isaac’s parents (Fred Melamed and Rhea Perlman), his siblings (Shiri Appleby and Martin Starr), and his old therapist/family friend, Dr. Gold (David Paymer). You see what I mean about Lemon having a bizarrely stacked cast? Appleby is charming and delightful as usual, playing Ruthie – perhaps the only of the three siblings to appear a fully functional member of society. Starr plays Adam, and if you’ve seen Martin Starr in anything else you pretty much know what you’re gonna get here – and that it’ll be hilarious. Adam is married with children, and his wife – one of the funniest characters in the film (itself a bold choice on Bravo’s part) – is, evidently, severely mentally ill, not seeming to process anything and breaking dishes at random.
This extended sequence, which cuts back and forth between family members as if Lemon had been an ensemble piece up until this point and not a one-hander focused singularly on Isaac, comprehensively illuminates how and why Isaac turned out like he did. It’s reminiscent of the family dinner scene in one of my favorite films, Punch-Drunk Love, with Isaac suffering the constant hum of his suffocating family from the moment he arrives until the moment he leaves.
One scene, which takes place at Isaac’s parents’ house, was something of a revelatory cinematic moment for me. The whole family gathers around a piano in the living room, posed deliberately for Bravo’s camera as if for a spread in Entertainment Weekly, and sings a song entitled “One Million Matzoh-Balls.” Bravo’s intelligence as a director is apparent in every shot of this odd musical scene. Each of the characters, alone in their little corner of the room, exhibits their idiosyncrasies perfectly during this one moment of family harmony. Shiri Appleby twirling her head to the absurd lyrics of “One Million Matzoh-Balls” is etched in my memory forever – as is the tiny detail of Adam’s wife finally engaging with the proceedings, offering up what could barely be described as a clap once the song comes to its conclusion. I wanted the scene to never end.
Here’s hoping Lemon makes a whole bunch more money than anticipated so that Janicza Bravo can continue making films as distinct as this one for many years to come.
Previous coverage of IFF Boston:
My review of Columbus