Janicza Bravo’s first feature film, Lemon, is a quirky triumph that is as bizarre as it is charming.
Midlife crisis is a relative term. There are no do-or-don’t’s to the self-reflective period that nearly 25 percent of Americans go through in their lifetimes. It’s an emotional episode that differs for each person. Some buy a Harley-Davidson, others nosedive into some heavy drug use (no pun intended) and a few try to revitalize their youth by purchasing some ill-advised hair plugs. It’s often a disastrous period in which one partakes in some rather poor choices to satisfy whatever issues one may have with their progressively aging life.
But for Isaac Lachmann (co-writer Brett Gelman), his midlife crisis is not as black and white as it is for many other Americans. For Isaac, his spiral out of control does not begin as a result of an existential crisis of age but rather due to the failings that seem to all be happening at once at the oh-so emotionally tender age of forty. In a series of weeks–but what feel more like hours to Isaac–his girlfriend of ten years leaves him, his theater students at a community college are outperforming him, and his domineering family just won’t relent.
While this hackneyed narrative has been explored inside-and-out numerous times, Janicza Bravo does an excellent job of bringing new light into what is ordinarily a rather pallid affair with Lemon. From the strong, focalized direction to the wistful mise-en-scéne that brings out Isaac’s internal disposition, Bravo works tirelessly to provide an eccentrically charming film that is as refreshing as it is strange.
Whether it is the rigidly precise framing or the ominous non-diegetic music that hangs over Isaac like a shroud of despair, Bravo uses every instrument at her disposal to demonstrate Isaac’s unraveling world. It is this diegetic approach that makes Lemon work to create characterization and progress the narrative. At times, Lemon may seem like it is providing insight into the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic–which makes all the more sense once you meet his family–but Bravo and Gelman (who are married in real-life) provide an adept screenplay that grounds the bizarre situations and interactions in a rather peculiar postmodern world. The theatrical, dream-like dialogue glides along, dropping nodes of eccentricity whenever at all possible, leaving behind an humorously interesting diegetic world.
At first, audiences are led to believe that this to be a look into the bizarre characters that surround Isaac. We’re introduced to eccentric individuals like his student, Alex (the always funny Michael Cera), who discusses his need to fixate on different animals to help “flush out his character.” Further still is the stringently bizarre art director (Megan Mullally) who is soulless in her critique of the hapless Isaac. These initial characters and their eccentric outlooks makes one believe that Isaac is surrounded by likeminded individuals everywhere he turns. It makes one think that perhaps the entire diegetic world is this postmodernist look into the sordid world of B- and C-movie Hollywood.
But we are soon introduced to a variety of grounded, stable individuals that show us that perhaps Isaac has been the insane one all along. For one, his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer) seems more well-balanced than any of the individuals that Isaac knows personally. Others like his father (Fred Melamed) and new girlfriend, Cleo (Nia Long), provide points of sanity on this idiosyncratic ride through the crumbling world of Isaac Lachmann. It is exactly these grounded-in-reality characters that make Lemon such a laugh-out loud riot at times. It is only once we understand that Isaac–and the circus of weirdos he’s surrounded himself with–are alone in their eccentricities do we find the humor in his collapsing internal disposition.
And that is all thanks to the bevy of cameos in Lemon, which is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film. From Jon Daly and Martin Starr to Gillian Jacobs and Jeff Garlin, Bravo has seemingly pulled all her Sundance and SXSW strings to bring together a truly wonderful cast of colorful characters. It provides wonderful contextualization to the insanity that is Isaac Lachmann’s world for only once we understand that Isaac is alone in his eccentricity are we moved to laugh at his bizarre responses and actions. And that midlife crisis sure isn’t helping.
Magnolia Pictures will release LEMON in LA theaters, on ITunes, OnDemand and Amazon Video August 18 and in NY theaters on August 25.