Why 'Lemon' Is the Tartest Comedy of the Summer

© Magnolia Pictures
© Magnolia Pictures
The button-pushing indie comedy Lemon seems like a character study of an obnoxious loser, but it’s much more than that. It teems with sharp insights into racism, sexism, and how children imbibe the attitudes and behavioral patterns of their parents. It’s also a hoot.

The white everyman “hero” of Panamanian-American director Janicza Bravo’s Lemon is initially a world-class jerk. A fortyish L.A.-based actor and stage director who’s drifted into permanent wannabe status, Isaac Lachmann (Brett Gelman, Bravo’s co-writer and husband) is an envious, bitter boor. His social awkwardness sets the tone for a movie full of deliberate non-sequiturs and alarming musical cues.

Misogyny and racial insensitivity (if not hardcore racism) are Isaac’s middle names. He mercilessly harangues the capable actress (Gillian Jacobs) he’s directing in The Seagull while fawning over a pretentious actor (Michael Cera) he’s befriending because he happens to be making it in the movie biz. Sensing the actor is pulling away from him, Isaac vandalizes his car.

During a shoot with a languid English photographer (Megan Mullally, hilarious), Isaac demonstrates his social ineptitude by telling the black assistant (Nia Long) that his sister Ruthie (Shiri Appleby) has a black son—the remark inappropriately reminding the woman of her skin color. It’s little wonder that Ramona (Judy Greer), Isaac’s girlfriend of 10 years, is dumping him for another man.

Lemon director Janicza Bravo with stars Brett Gelman and Megan Mullaly © Magnolia Pictures

Viewers of Lemon should keep in mind Jesus’s words to the scribes and Pharisees in John 8: 2-11: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” Let he or she who is squeaky clean denounce Isaac, the poor slob, because most of us make errors of taste when grasping for love, acceptance, and success in a dog-eat-dog world. And at least Isaac tries, in his clueless way, to make amends.

The following conversation is a composite of interviews I did with Bravo, Gelman, and Appleby on the eve of their deliciously weird movie’s release.

Culture Trip: Was Isaac based on a real person or is he a composite?

Brett Gelman: He was influenced by some people that I have known and been friends with over the years—I had a couple of people in mind specifically. He’s also a symbol of my dread of what I am deep inside, who I’m afraid I actually am—a person who will never achieve anything and has no tools to help himself change.

Janicza Bravo: Isaac is very much based on an amalgamation of my and Brett’s anxiety and fear. When we started working on this, I was 30—and I was 35 when we wrote the very first draft of the script. At that point, many of our friends and people in our community were buying homes, getting married, having children, and going on these, like, month-long excursions to Europe. And here I was not really sure what my next job was, and I had this pit in my stomach. Brett felt similarly.

I thought, “Oh, my God, am I going to wake up one day five to 10 years from now and not have any idea of how I got here? And, if that happens, am I going to be able to reverse it, or am I one of these people that doesn’t get to arrive? There are plenty of people who are decent artists and deserve some level of success, but they don’t get it. I was having this massive panic because maybe I was one of those people, but I thought maybe I should celebrate this, because I’m really lucky I get to know that I’m not going to be all the things I should be.

We were both just in this bleak space, feeling everybody was passing us by and that we didn’t have the tools to succeed. For both of us the film is very much an exorcism.

Ramona (Judy Greer) and Isaac (Brett Gelman) in Lemon © Magnolia Pictures

CT: Do you see Isaac as a grossly exaggerated version of yourself, Brett?

BG: I think he has a grossly exaggerated version of my flaws in the way he can be narcissistic, how stuck he is, and how his anger and fear have spiraled out of control. They are all qualities I possess—a lot of us have them. The goal of my performance and the film is not necessarily to alienate people as much as it is to make people feel less lonely and less ashamed of having these flaws, and for us to be able to laugh at them.

CT: Why did you choose a male protagonist?

JB: I don’t know that it was on purpose. I used to direct theater and in that, as in most of my writing, I usually picked male protagonists. I guess I’ve been able to see myself in men. It’s not like I look at Isaac and see myself in a body that feels stuck or stagnant. His eyes, his color, and his texture—his maleness and whiteness—are very much part of the storytelling. I can see him and see myself. The film is not so much about gender, it’s about people.

The biggest inspirations for the film were Hal Ashby’s first feature The Landlord [1070], which has a male protagonist, and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz [1971]. Both were directed by white guys and each has a very muscular male feeling. I feel I come from a kind of muscular place myself, and the film isn’t dissimilar from my own thinking or my upbringing.

Cleo (Nia Long) in Lemon © Magnolia Pictures

CT: The film’s opening image shows an African woman [played by Inger Tudor] talking on television about the terror that has destroyed her family, and then you pan to Isaac reclining with his mouth open, oblivious of the woman’s speech but shattered by his collapsing relationship with Ramona. What prompted that startling transition?

JB: While Lemon is surreal and absurd and peculiar, it sits alongside a kind of indie comedy about a white guy in his late thirties or early forties whom everybody likes and for whom everything tends to work out. I thought, “What if you made a film about this guy and everything doesn’t work out for him and his life is just a plateau?” I found out there wasn’t anybody like me really making films like that, and that if there were women who looked like me in them, they were very much accessories. So I chose to open the film on what I think in a school paper would be referred to as “black pain”—the story of a deep black tragedy. The camera, in other words, shows a terrible thing that Isaac doesn’t have time for.

This shows our myopia. The point is there are people in much more dire straits than we’re in, but we can only see as far as our own noses. We all want to do better, and there’s some degree of awareness that there is something bigger than us out there, but it’s really hard enough to take care of oneself. And then in terms of Issac’s meeting Cleo, I really wanted a black character in this world that we spend time with—a Caribbean woman who’s life hasn’t collapsed because she’s a single mother. Who comes from a great family and has a great job and lives in a beautiful space and is totally stable. I hadn’t seen that before in many films.

BG: At the beginning, you see an example of very serious real world problems, which is then overshadowed by these more privileged problems. That woman discussing what’s happened to her family in Africa would not be able to survive if she had Isaac’s personality, whereas Isaac is in a society where he’s able to spin out of control and not be destroyed. Isaac exists on this plateau of mediocrity, but nothing too bad happens to him compared with what happens to most people in the world.

Isaac (Brett Gelman) heading to a date with Cleo © Magnolia Pictures

CT: Are Isaac’s attitudes to women and black people a result of conditioning?

BG: I believe everyone in society is conditioned to play a role by the system we are brought up in. So I think there is also a subconscious reaction to these things that have been almost planted in our minds. In terms of Isaac’s dismissive attitude to Cleo, that comes mostly from his nervousness and narcisssism and not knowing how to talk to a black person.

In the case of Tracy [Gillian Jacobs] in the acting scene, I think it’s a case of him seeing himself in her and wishing he was Michael Cera’s character. But I don’t think Isaac is conscious of this because he punishes Tracy for his own weakness.

JB: Isaac’s behavior is likely a manifestation of what he feels manliness is. For example, he’s turned on by Alex’s coolness and he wants to be cool like him, which is why he starts smoking cigarettes.

Alex (Michael Cera) and Isaac (Brett Gelman) in Lemon © Magnolia Picture

CT: Your juxtaposing of the two family gatherings—Isaac’s family’s Seder and Cleo’s Caribbean family’s barbecue—explains so much about their relative temperaments. Isaac has inherited his father’s aggressiveness and his mother’s anxiety. Cleo and the other Caribbeans are much more easygoing.

JB: The second act of the film functions as a sort of origin story of why Isaac is the way he is. His family is an inherited trauma, which explain where he came from and why his behavior is like it is. His father [Fred Melamed] treats his mother [Rhea Perlman] a certain way and navigates through space in a certain way, and Isaac has obviously learned that. And though he’s the oldest child, he feels he’s swallowed whole by the family. He disappears into that dynamic and he feels voiceless and unheard—and he feels those things legitimately.

The Seder and barbecue are sort of homages to what Brett’s and my families feel like. The palette for the Seder is a little desaturated, a little beige, and the barbecue is very saturated, very yellow and warm. There’s a lot of love in both of those spaces, but how it manifests itself is so different in each.

CT: When everybody else is belting out “A Million Matzoh Balls,” Isaac and his almost catatonic sister-in-law, Susan [Kayla Harrity], are sitting motionless on the sofa, united in hopelessness.

JB: Yes, they’re shut out, the two people who are in misery.

Happy family: Isaac (Brett Gelman. frony right) and his sister-in-law Susan (Kayla Harrity) in Lemon © Magnolia PIctures

CT: Shiri, your character, Ruthie, Isaac’s sister, really lets rip during the song. She’s got mixed values, though—for example, she’s very vehement about defending the son she had with a black guy, but then very rude to the family’s Latina maid.

Shiri Appleby: Yes, she’s a very self-centered character and sees what she wants to see in the world. Certain things are appealing to her and certain thing aren’t, and she’s unabashed in that.

But Ruthie’s very much this bubbly light in the family and a strong support system for Isaac. She feels his pain and shields him from as much of it as she can, while throwing punches at her other brother [Martin Starr] and trying to keep the peace. But at the same time she fights and fights for what she believes is right.

CT: As an actor, what do you feel about so many scenes in the film remaining unresolved?

SA: It actually makes you feel much more intrigued than if everything is exposed. It glues you to this unfolding story where it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. We can only see some of the pieces but that makes it so much more interesting.