Isaac is a 40-year-old out of work actor who pays his bills teaching acting classes. His girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. His cynical siblings (Siri Appleby and Martin Starr) see past him. His high maintenance parents (Rhea Pearlman and Fred Melamad) don’t listen to him.
One of our first exposures to Isaac is in his element as an acting teacher. On stage, Alex (Michael Cera) and Tracy (Gillian Jacobs) play out a scene until Isaac steps in. Isaac idolizes Alex, whose approach to acting is rife with farcical nonsense about colors and animals, and demeans Tracy.
This routine is a snapshot of Isaac: deep-seated anger and regret suppressed and projected onto younger talent. The manner by which he flips on a dime with Alex is an overt signal of these insecurities. Outside of his realm of power, Isaac’s entire social persona is awkwardly stilted to the point of being sad and unrealistic.
With this characterization, Lemon wants to be a meditation on the broken, aging, and failed creative mind. The surreality of the film’s characters and some of its situations makes it hard to see this emotional center.
Isaac is buried under the weight of the film’s desire to be a black comedy. The strangeness that is meant to bring out this comedy undercuts the psychological drama of the main character, and the comedy that comes in its place only serves to muddy the purpose of the film.
What the film wants to be is quirky and unique, a character portrait that is off-beat and tonally eye-catching. In execution, it is instead a tonally cumbersome film that moves its eye away from its protagonist too often to truly be a portrait of anything significant.
These supporting characters that each get their ample time on-screen don’t seem to provide anything of merit to the story, save for Nia Long’s Cleo. Long’s, as a result, is the strongest performance in the film. Aside from her, the introduction and swift exit of characters makes the film feel like a jumble of scenes pieced together with no real sense of narrative cohesion.
Lemon is purposefully confounding. It does not want to be accessible. Perhaps, then, it should get credit for succeeding on that front. But sifting through the confusion does not allow for much of anything. What can be sorted out thematically may ring true, but it is so deeply encoded into a film that insists on being droll and surreal that it is impossible to fully enjoy any layers that the film has (or pretends to have).
The film also begins and ends with a scatological set piece. If that isn’t a sign of something being off in a brooding dark comedy about fumbling mediocrity than I don’t know what is.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)