Reviewing “Lemon” feels like taking a sucker’s bet, treating the film with a reverence it never even asks for. Janicza Bravo’s feature debut, written with her husband and its star, Brett Gelman, traffics in the same anti-humor as Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” and “Entertainment,” knowingly titled movies that offer nothing of the sort. Give “Lemon” credit, then: It’s a case of truth in advertising.
The movie opens with a woman on television recounting horrors in Africa, it seems, only to pivot to the viewer on the couch, something of a tragic case himself. Isaac (Mr. Gelman) is a failure in every respect: career, grooming and — we eventually discover — pet-sitting and bathroom hygiene. He appears in embarrassing ads. While working as an acting teacher, he pits two students (Gillian Jacobs and Michael Cera, sporting what looks like a rodent-chewed Art Garfunkel hairdo) against each other, perhaps for his amusement. Though he’s not laughing. After Mr. Cera’s character finds success, Isaac tags his car with a slur.
Isaac is also in a floundering relationship with a blind woman (Judy Greer), who respects him almost as little as he does her. In a centerpiece of sorts, Isaac attends a Passover Seder at which his brother (Martin Starr) questions the Jewishness of their sister (Shiri Appleby) and her black son (Blake Anthony Crawford). You could cry anti-Semitism, but you’d be taking the bait; the movie calculates its ethnic stereotypes to offend and dares you not to be in on the gag.
The protagonist eventually tiptoes toward functionality while wooing a woman (Nia Long) who, like Ms. Bravo, is black. At this point “Lemon” apparently becomes an inside joke about the filmmakers. (Mr. Gelman is Jewish.) The rampant self-loathing was just a ruse for narcissism.
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