Janicza Bravo’s Lemon is one in a long line of indie comedy-dramas about middle-aged white men with little to offer the world except disdain.
What sets it apart are the racial politics, which stem from the marriage between writer/director Bravo, a woman of color, and the film's star, Brett Gelman, who is white. Gelman plays Isaac, a theater teacher who wears the same tan suit daily and dreams of acting stardom, but the best he can book are cautionary ads about hepatitis C. His visually impaired girlfriend, Ramona (a frizzy-haired Judy Greer), works for a medical supply company, so he thinks of himself as the creative one in the household.
Issac's favorite student, Alex (Michael Cera, with a halo of side-parted hair), is an insufferable twit who has been working on a scene with the insecure Tracy (Gillian Jacobs). Just as Alex's career kicks into overdrive, Ramona steps out with another man. Out of a combination of jealousy and frustration, Isaac lashes out at both, pushing them away. Then, he starts to see makeup artist Cleo (Nia Long), though he has a knack for saying inappropriate things whenever they get together, not least because he sees black people as more alien than human. At Passover, a family friend (David Paymer) states, "It's time for a new you; the old you doesn't work anymore," but things proceed from bad to worse until the film ends with a character, a "lemon" in auto parlance, who has learned nothing from his travails.
Bravo and Gelman may have been aiming for comedy, and they come close with a spliff-saturated barbecue sequence, but Isaac's bumbling often seems more tragic than not.