A woman tells a story of genocidal pillage on a grainy television screen, she asks herself “They didn’t take me, I don’t know why.”
A sharp, ominous choral dirge follows a slow pan across a dishevelled, tangerine tinted LA bedroom, only to be interrupted by the sound of groans, a ruffling of blankets, and the tired, frustrated groans of a tired, frustrated couple starting their morning rituals.
This is how Lemon begins, the directorial debut of Janicza Bravo, co-written by Bravo and Brett Gelman, who stars as the film’s protagonist amongst an ensemble of formidable actors including Michael Cera, Jeff Garlin, Nia Long, and Judy Greer. It’s an awkward, unsettling beginning for what will become an even more awkward, unsettling film.
Lemon is clearly influenced by two very disparate styles of comedy and drama that have come to embody our zeitgeist: the twee, nostalgic dramedy popularised by the likes of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and the surreal, Dadaist comedy of Adult Swim. Lemon takes the style of the latter to mock the former, an interesting, if not wholly original idea. Yet, as the film reaches the halfway point, it becomes clear that this kind of style works great in sketches, but not so much in a full-length film.
A pervasive feeling of forced weirdness drags through Lemon, as its ironically clunky writing, non-sequiturs and choppy edits disorient and disturb its audience. This formula rarely works, eliciting a few good laughs in the opening minutes before becoming an increasingly irritating, half-attempt at humour that makes viewing often close to impossible. This is not aided by the swirling, knife-in-ear monotonous clarinet runs that continuously remind the audience, “gee, this movie sure is strange!”
Lemon paints a bizarre tapestry of barely present characters, a protagonist that amounts to nothing more than a silhouette of a parody for its source material, a girlfriend who functions to show how awful the protagonist is, some pretentious actors, the protagonist’s new girlfriend who works to demonstrate a terribly executed diatribe on race relations. When Isaac’s whole family, and therapist, sings “A Million Matzo Balls” for what feels like hours, I find myself head in hands, begging the screen for answers – where does the parody end and the commentary begin?
The grand problem with Lemon is that it is so self-assured in its deftness of parody, its superiority over what it tries to subvert, that it never really subverts anything. What makes Dada work is an actually inventive upheaval of its source material to shock the viewer, rather than a bunch of tired gags that run their course in the opening scenes. Every time it tries to pry open the trope bag of legitimate issues in New Sincere cinema – whiteness, misogyny, male jadedness, predictability – it holds itself back and shoots for the simplistic and tacky. In a Kafkaesque twist, Lemon, through its own machinations, becomes the beast it tried to hunt down.
Lemon (MA 15) is screening at the Sydney Underground Film Festival.