To say that “Lemon” is quirky would be like saying that a lemon is yellow: It’s the nature of the object. The film’s entire raison d’être is to be as quirky and anomalous and avant-weird as possible. Mission accomplished. It’s fair to ask, though: To what end? “Lemon” is the year’s breakout buzz film from the Next section of Sundance, which is all about the cutting edge (it also just kicked off the International Film Festival Rotterdam), but let’s be clear: You could program this movie in 100 specialty theaters and market it with an advertising budget of $5 million, and it’s still doubtful that many people would show up. Not because the film is “too strange,” but because it’s so hermetically coy and self-conscious.
“Lemon” is a comedy of miserablism that keeps poking you in the ribs — and, quite often, fails to hit the rib it’s aiming for. Yet it’s a watchable curio, because beneath it all the director, the Panamanian-born Janicza Bravo, has a more conventional sensibility than she lets on. Her style might be described as Theater of the Absurd meets Comedy Central sitcom.
The pivotal character, Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman), is the sort of person you would turn to get away from after talking to him at a party for 20 seconds. Tall and stiff, with a comb-over and bushy black beard, and often dressed in shorts, he looks mildly insane, and he communicates by blurting out remarks that are hostile in a vague and random way, so that you’re pretty certain you’ve been insulted even though it’s not clear what the insult was. As a director, Bravo favors squirmingly extended takes that pin her characters like insects (the sort of thing David Lynch used to do, only here the shots are more static than hypnotic). And the film’s dialogue is highly stylized: a series of minimalist blips. It’s like a conversation with every third sentence cut out, and we’re supposed to fill in the blanks.
Isaac is a struggling actor who directs a tiny theater company in Los Angeles, where he’s staging a production of “The Seagull,” which he rehearses by treating the lead actress (Gillian Jacobs) as a contemptible pariah and the lead actor, played by Michael Cera in a wedge of hair that makes him look like Frédéric Chopin crossed with Eraserhead, as a genius. The contrast is so inexplicable yet over-the-top that your first inclination is to wonder whether Isaac is a misogynist, or just losing his marbles. But then we see him at home with his girlfriend of ten years, Ramona (Judy Greer, made up to look like a frazzled Tim Burton Halloween doll), who happens to be blind, and who keeps going on trips because she can no longer stand to be in the same room with him. Your second inclination is to think: Okay, there’s a pattern here.
In rare cases, a totally off-putting protagonist can be a bracing thing. Ronald Bronstein’s startling 2008 indie-fringe movie “Frownland” was built around a discombobulated loser who sold coupons for a living and could barely get a sentence out, and the film made his antic desperation ours. But in “Lemon,” the problem isn’t that Isaac is a toxic a—hole. It’s that his personality is like a wall; it lets nothing in, including the audience’s impulse to connect. The actor, Brett Gelman, is married to Bravo (they co-wrote the script), and I would respectfully submit that in an otherwise astutely cast movie, she has made the mistake of thinking that there’s more to his screen presence than there, in fact, is. The central joke of “Lemon” feels very private: “Look at what an unappealing cad this guy is.” Well, yes, but make him an interesting unappealing cad.
The reason I say that Bravo, deep down, has a conventional sensibility is that once the movie gets past the early theater scenes (which are deadly), as well as a bizarrely awkward and never-explained moment in which Isaac places Cera’s character in a forced bear-hug and tries to kiss him on the lips (is Isaac, in addition to being a misogynist, a self-loathing gay man? Is the backwardness of all this part of the film’s perverse cool?), it begins to introduce elements that are “fun” in a skewed way. There’s a Passover Seder at the home of Isaac’s relatives that has enough sitting-around-the-table invective (including some barely closeted racism) to be part of an overly telegraphed Sundance dysfunctional-family comedy. It even ends on an incongruous note of upbeat catchiness, as everyone in the room takes turns singing a song called “A Million Matzoh Balls.”
It’s a pretty tart irony that the scenes that work best in “Lemon,” like that one, are the most ordinary. Basically, Bravo has made a Hollywood audition film in absurdist bohemian clothing. Once Ramona finally ditches Isaac, he realizes that he’s got to do a “reset” (as his relative, played by David Paymer in the film’s only moment of actual emotion, tells him), so he lands a date with Cleo (Nia Long), a Jamaican-American woman he initially treats like crap, until he gets invited to her family’s backyard barbecue. And then? Then not very much. “Lemon” is a trifle that’s intentionally more sour than sweet. But it has an amazing moment near the end: Isaac pushing one of Cleo’s relatives down the middle of the street in her wheelchair, accompanied by the reggae song “I Am Dangerous.” I wasn’t quite sure what the point of this sequence was, yet the music, combined with the direct camera angle on Isaac’s distemper, makes it mesmerizing. It suggests that what’s next for Janicza Bravo doesn’t need to keep itself at arm’s length from the audience.