Weird ‘Lemon’ is portrait of a middle-age jerk

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 Movies & TV
Judy Greer and Brett Gelman star in “Lemon.” Contributed by Magnolia Pictures

Some facts: “Lemon” stars Brett Gelman, was written by Gelman and his wife, Janicza Bravo, and was directed by the latter.

It poses one of the year’s most important cinematic questions — is Isaac Lachmann, the person Gelman plays here, actually a worse human being than Martin, his character on the British TV show “Fleabag”? It is a neck-and-neck race to the bottom in the Annoying Middle-Aged White Guy Stakes.

Self-consciously mannered with an almost Pinter-like vibe (moreso perhaps than the post-Pinter bard of Long Island, Hal Hartley), “Lemon,” which screened at South by Southwest, is the story of Lachmann. Everything about this guy screams jerk — tall but not self-possessed, he sports a comb-over, is an unsuccessful actor and works, sort of, as a bitter theater director. He also wears shorts. A lot.

Lachmann is directing a production of the “The Seagull,” hates the lead actress and clearly has some sort of increasingly odd crush on the lead (Michael Cera with bonkers hair, and God bless him for getting weirder with age). Lachmann’s girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer), is blind, goes on lots of work trips and clearly wants out of this relationship.

Things never really get less awkward — indeed the film just seems to get stranger by the minute. As Ramona slips away from him (emotionally), Lachmann books some small TV ads, where the director examines him like a steer. (The film’s best joke might very well be the cameraman’s reaction when Lachmann gives his age and weight.)

The cringe-hits just keep on coming. When he goes to a Passover Seder hosted by his parents (Rhea Perlman and Fred Melamed), his brother (Martin Starr) breaks out some racially awkward chatter about their sister (Shiri Appleby) and her African-American child. The scene where everyone sings “A Million Matzoh Balls” is just as stomach-turningly odd as it sounds.

Even when fortune smiles on him and a lovely Jamaican woman (Nia Long) take a liking to him, he remains the sort of fellow who meets her family and says, “I saw a documentary about African-American hair. A lot of hair comes from horses.” The final sequence is … explosive.

There is no hugging and no learning here, no big catharsis or revelation. Bravo and Gelman deliver an unnerving and deeply weird portrait of the artist as a middle-age jerk. We have seen such things before, but maybe never quite like this.

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