Sundance Review: ‘Lemon ‘Is A Creep-Comedy Masterpiece Starring Brett Gelman

While I’m fairly certain Lemon, Janicza Bravo and husband Brett Gelman’s symphony of awkwardness and pathos, will ultimately be shunted aside, dumped into limited release or direct to streaming for a self-selecting audience of diehard alt comedy nerds, at the very least I hope a few aspiring directors see it. If studio comedies could achieve one tenth this level of craft the world would be a lot more interesting.

Even if you don’t find Lemon as consistently funny as I do (and pretty much no one I talked to afterwards did), it’s an amazing exhibition of what’s possible with the form. At a time when most comedy cinema consists basically of filmed improv shows — shot/reverse shot coverage of two or three funny people yelling excitedly at each other, half committing to the scene, half winking — Lemon is one of those rare works that proves that a comedy film is something you do with the camera, not in front of the camera.

Admittedly, it can be easy to miss that when you’re distracted by Brett Gelman shitting on his hands and running down the street in his underwear. But the fact is, Lemon is art — funny in the writing, funny in the acting, funny in the composition, and funny in the editing. I’m not exaggerating when I call it a symphony. So many disparate elements had to harmonize to make this work, and it’s a wonder.

The best way I can describe Lemon is that it’s like a Philip Roth story directed in the style of Napoleon Dynamite. Which is to say that it’s the story of a disaffected, self-parody of a Jewish intellectual vs. his own desires and neuroses, shot in such a way as to squeeze maximum surreality out of matter-of-fact center frames and perfectly disjointed edits. Of course, it’s not as deadpan as Napoleon and it’s set in an entirely different world. Specifically, the world of the self-regarding L.A. intelligentsia. Brett Gelman, whose “iBrain” story on Comedy Bang-Bang remains in my all-time top five of things I’ve laughed hardest at, plays Isaac, an acting teacher looking for his own big break, who mostly only gets cast in PSAs about herpes and hepatitis C. He’s trapped in a loveless relationship with a blind woman, played by Judy Greer.

Like everything in Lemon, the plot points sound like sort of familiar comedic premises, but Lemon isn’t your usual set-em-up/knock-em-down comedy. Nothing is throwaway. Bravo (who directed and co-wrote, with Gelman) delves and explores every premise in excruciating detail, making visceral magic from the way Greer recoils at Gelman’s touch, or the way the commercial director (played by Megan Mullally) and her assistant pick apart Isaac’s appearance while he stands motionless in front of them in a giant white room. Gelman is the perfect punching bag as Isaac, this put upon but vain human sight gag. There’s also the Gelman voice, that brassy honk that shifts between campy self-satisfaction and deep-seated insecurity, turning every sentence into tragicomedy.

Michael Cera plays Isaac’s pompous acting pupil, Alex, who attributes his latest acting breakthrough to making color palettes out of all his scenes and who’s never short on supposedly edifying anecdotes from his prolific world travels. It’s a perfect character for Cera, this conceited, faux-worldly would-be raconteur, because it’s so unlike the characters Cera became known for playing (and unfairly branded a one-trick pony for, in some quarters). Honestly, there may be five actors living who could hope to match Cera’s comedic range and timing, and playing off Gelman, as his stalkerish teacher, and Gillian Jacobs, as his plucky, can’t-catch-a-break scene partner, is his perfect showcase.

Lemon‘s cast isn’t limited just to the UCB and UCB-adjacent crew either — Gelman, Greer, Michaels, Cera, Martin Starr, Mullally — it also folds in a handful of actors you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see, like Fred Melamed as Isaac’s father, Rhea Perlman as his mother, Nia Long as his love interest (Isaac’s pick-up line: “How old is your son? My sister has a black son.”), and Shiri Appleby as his sister. It’s an ongoing source of fascination for me that Fred Melamed (perhaps best known for A Serious Man) keeps getting typecast as the intellectual with African masks on his walls, but he really is perfect for it.

The film eventually becomes the tale of two family gatherings, one Isaac’s Passover seder, the other Nia Long’s character’s Jamaican barbecue. Both are art pieces in their own right, and funny in ways it’s hard to categorize. If there’s a defining shot in the film, it’s the one where Shiri Appleby is flipping her hair back and forth like Cher to the tune of “A Million Matzoh Balls,” which her family has gathered round the piano to sing together, a task they perform energetically but dutifully, without any apparent affection for each other. On the page it’s probably not that funny, if it even makes sense. But in practice, Appleby’s hair flipping back and forth, bookended by a deadpan Martin Starr, set to this goofy song — the acting choices, the framing choices, the writing, the editing, they all work together perfectly to create this bizarre but perfectly memorable and hilarious image. I’d love to bottle what Lemon has and sprinkle it on other comedies.