American auteur Jim Jarmusch once said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” With Lemon, it might seem writer/director Janicza Bravo has made a creative and interesting film, but artistic influences in her style do not make up for a vague plot.
The film centers on Isaac (Brett Gelman), a dejected forty-something small time actor. Throughout Lemon, we see why Isaac seems agonized: his girlfriend has decided to leave him after ten years together, his career seems to give him no fulfilment, and his own family seem to have no confidence in him.
The film opens with the struggles between Isaac and his girlfriend. Ramona (Judy Greer) is blind and even though she can’t physically see Isaac, her blindness is symbolic as well since she barely acknowledges his presence. This symptomatic nature also appears in the acting classes Isaac hosts. Alex (Michael Cera) and Tracy (Gillian Jacobs) rehearse scenes from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Isaac is supercilious towards Tracy and her efforts but appreciative of Alex’s. The subtext hints that Isaac feels he is trying in his own relationship while Ramona is not.
At one point Isaac says to Alex “I feel we have a lot to offer each other socially” which is debatable given the ill-considered impulse he has of making unprovoked and redundant comments. In fact, none of the characters in Lemon is likeable. Isaac is a disheartened boyfriend, Alex is a narcissist, Tracy is needy, and even Isaac’s family are disagreeable. However, every character seems to share a need to be loved and appreciated. Even when Isaac attends a barbecue of a new American Jamaican love interest, her family express the hostility they feel in society. This appears to be the central theme of this film, that we as human beings need to feel loved in order to be happy and the outside world is not empathetic. However, Bravo’s film is too unfocused for me to definitively declare this as the theme of the film.
The blocking in some scenes in Lemon is notable, particularly when Isaac and Ramona break up. It is reminiscent of the cinematography in Ingmar Bergman’s films: Bravo’s characters are seated back-to-back conversing instead of aggressively confronting each other. Additionally, when Isaac and his family are preparing for Jewish Passover the juxtaposition is evocative of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Yet these homages do not seem to support the story and Lemon is ultimately composed of intermittent scenes and incidents. The styles of Bergman and Allen were used effectively in (500) Days of Summer to tell its story, but unfortunately Lemon does not have much of a story to tell and the film is unsupported in its style.
I’m intrigued to see what Bravo films next, and I hope her stylistic preferences will complement the project that succeeds this. But, unfortunately, Lemon is exactly what the term refers to: something defective and unsatisfactory.