In Lemon, opening Aug. 25, Brett Gelman plays a man every bit as broken as the film’s title implies. Isaac is a failed actor whose agent (Jeff Garland) can only get him auditions for adult-diaper ads. As a small-time theater director, he sadistically belittles a bright-eyed actor (Gillian Jacobs) who reminds him of his ex, while desperately trying to befriend another one half his age (Michael Cera). Isaac’s cheating girlfriend (Judy Greer) is leaving him, and his clumsy attempts to rebound into the arms of a black woman are sabotaged by his utter cluelessness about race. On top of it all, his seder with his doubly neurotic relatives (Fred Melamed, Martin Starr) proves to be the most horrific family dinner scene since Get Out.
Lemon premiered at BAMcinemafest in June. The last time Gelman– the ubiquitous bearded baritone who has appeared in Kroll Show, Eagleheart, Drunk History, and so on– was at that festival, he was the coke-snorting good-time guy in Joshy. Whereas that was a semi-loving portrayal of “dudes who vape” and their sad-sack buddy whose fiancée has left him, this is an altogether less sympathetic portrayal of a mid-life crisis.
Janicza Bravo, the director of Lemon, said she was inspired in part by a certain genre of film depicting “the 30-something, 40-something-year-old white guy who everything works out for.”
“In our version,” she noted, “he is as mediocre as he seems and as privileged as he believes.” You can be sure that instead of riding off into the sunset, Isaac will get his car towed.
While Lemon is a reaction to a cinematic genre, the film was also inspired by the real-life career anxieties of Gelman and Bravo, a married couple who wrote the film together about five years ago. Bravo has made several shorts but not until last year did she manage to get her first feature made. “I’d always wanted to make films and it felt like I was asking for permission to play in that space and no one was really giving it to me,” she told the crowd at BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building.
Nine years ago, Bravo moved to Los Angeles, where the film is set, but the city proved “upsetting,” she said. “We both left New York sort of looking for dreams but also we kept finding bad vibes.” She compared the city to “a hostile, violent knife,” whereupon Gelman chimed in: “But, like, really chill, too.” Hence the dudes who vape.
The film’s most enjoyable satire happens as Isaac workshops The Seagull— those scenes, Bravo said, were based on actual experiences in acting classes, including the time she and a friend “broke our acting teacher in a class; he started crying and said he failed us, and then we never saw him again,” and the time “Brett had a teacher who told him he was his nemesis.”
Michael Cera is brilliant as the uber-pretentious actor who outshines his director, driving Isaac into a quiet, simmering anger that becomes more tightly wound with every minute of the film. Gelman said that, as an actor, it was “rough” to tap into “the level of anxiety that [Isaac] is going through and the level of rage coming out in him and how he feels so wronged.” Still, he told the crowd at BAM, being a producer helped him get there. “I just had to have a conversation with somebody and walk right on set and it was all right there.”
The film had a modest budget, but Gelman and Bravo were connected enough that they managed to cast many of the characters for whom they had written parts (Cera, Daly, Melamed, Greer). On the other hand, they didn’t have a direct line to Nia Long. Bravo described how she landed the Empire star: “I told a producer of ours, ‘Call her agent and tell her that I’m a black woman,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t think that’s a thing I can say.’ And I was like, ‘It’s gonna work.’ It did, and the next day she said, ‘Let’s hang out.’ And I was like, ‘I told you.'”