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Lemon (2017)

Magnolia Home Entertainment // Unrated // November 21, 2017
List Price: $10.45 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 7, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Lemon, a tiny and awkward comedy co-written by Janicza Bravo (also the director) and comedian Brett Gelman (also the star), is a perplexingly unique experience. The film follows Isaac Lachmann (Gelman), a 40-year-old acting coach/actor whose blind medical equipment merchant wife Ramona (Judy Greer) is leaving him, and whose brightest student, Alex (Michael Cera) is on the precipice of becoming the next big star. Confronted with the seemingly perpetual monotony and relative mediocrity of his existence, Isaac starts to spiral, or something like it.

To be quite honest, Bravo and Gelman's concept, a riff on the widely-popular "arrested development manchild" story in which the manchild doesn't actually have any great revelations or breakthroughs, is not necessarily what came to mind watching the film. It's certainly clear that Isaac is a loser: a big "get" in his acting career involves being the face of a hepatitis C campaign, he lashes out at Alex by jealously spray-painting a nonsensical racial slur on his car, and is caught multiple times during the movie covered in his own piss or shit. However, these repeated examples of Isaac's general uselessness never quite feel as if they're congealing into a greater whole or an overall structure.

That said, Lemon's odd formlessness is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the individual pieces making up the movie. The scene where Isaac and Alex finally have it out with one another is strange and uncomfortable and funny all at once, as is Isaac's tentative courtship with a new woman, Cleo (Nia Long), a single-mother makeup artist he meets on his hepatitis photoshoot. Isaac goes with Cleo to one of her family's barbecues, and there is a scene where Isaac, dripping with white guilt, gets into a nervous conversation with Cleo's relatives about crime statistics that is both very funny and crackles with nervous energy. In another sequence, Bravo deftly builds up a certain amount of ominous, uncomfortable energy, paying it off in a manner that is both unexpected and obvious at the same time.

Gelman is a man destined to play -- and, sincerely, I mean this in the nicest way -- comedy creeps, and has built up his profile doing just that in bit parts in The Other Guys and appearances on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and TV show. His performance as Isaac is actually quite impressive, eliminating any and all trace of charisma or pleasantness into Isaac's unusually useless presence. Isaac isn't quite annoying, isn't quite a pervert, isn't quite a complete asshole -- even when he crosses some of those lines, it never seems to be malicious or even quite conscious. Gelman's eyes are impenetrable, a complete wall between the audience and Isaac's inner emotional state. There are plenty of times when we can tell how Isaac feels, and at one point Bravo even seems to be giving us a glimpse into the mechanics of how Isaac thinks, in a scene where he seems to have a telepathic link to someone. The why, however, remains elusive.

In the bonus features on the DVD, Bravo and Gelman both say that the character of Isaac and his various neuroses were an amalgam of their own concerns and fears about the way they come off to people. This is a funny and sort of relatable way to look at the movie, to view Isaac's journey as a nightmare in which you yourself are Isaac, and that Isaac is an exacerbated version of everything you've ever worried about. However, like the satirization of the manchild story, Bravo and Gelman can't quite translate that concept into something that conveys itself to the audience through the film itself. The Lemon of the title is Isaac, in the "busted car" sense -- he's a defective human being. Something went wrong with him, and he's just out in the world, functioning improperly. The film Lemon isn't quite a lemon, it's too unique and intriguing to be considered a failure, but it could use some more work.

Lemon arrives via Magnolia in a very nice-looking DVD package. The Photoshop art on the front is nicely arranged and effectively designed to look a bit like a painting, and the bold yellow backdrop for the art is accentuated by a yellow eco-friendly DVD case (which works even if the yellow of the art isn't exactly the same yellow as the case). The one-disc release contains no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in what the packaging notes is 2.37:1 anamorphic widescreen and accompanied with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, Lemon is...fine on DVD. In bright scenes, the digital photography has a nice appearance, but some of the darker scenes, especially one scene in particular where Isaac fantasizes about Cleo, are muddied by artifacts and banding crawling around in the shadows. Given the feature is short and the disc only contains so many bonus features, it's a shame that the picture quality isn't better, especially given Magnolia seems to have gotten out of the business of releasing their films on Blu-ray. The approach to sound is generally pretty minimalist, with little more than directional effects for the dialogue based on the placement of the characters on the screen, or a touch of atmospheric ambiance captured by the original recording. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
As mentioned in the body of the review, the interviews with co-writer/director Janicza Bravo (13:59) and co-writer/actor Brett Gelman (8:03) are pretty essential for parsing what the movie is about. Bravo's is the more informative of the two, with the director providing more elaborate insight than Gelman on to their professional and personal relationship, and what inspired them to make the movie, but Gelman's is funny and both allow the viewer to extrapolate the details from each of them that might've gone into the character of Isaac. The disc also offers a selection of so-so outtakes/deleted scenes (16:07), which include some amusing additional scenes of Isaac being rude to Ramona, but also three interminable alternate takes of the scene where Isaac and his family sing the Matzoh ball song.

Trailers for Person to Person, Lucky, Blade of the Immortal, and promos for the Charity Network and axsTV play before the main menu, and are also re-viewable on the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Lemon is also included.

Lemon is more unique than good, but I'll take unique over formulaic, and the movie's just good enough to not be considered a wash. However, it is an extremely acquired taste, and coupled with a slightly underwhelming SD presentation, this one is a rental at best.

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