But all of those elements don't come together as you'd expect. Instead of a slacker-turned-hero comedy a la Judd Apatow, Lemon relentlessly smacks its viewers in the face with failure. Isaac pisses himself. Isaac brings fish sandwiches on set. Isaac stars in a Hepatitis C commercial, despite his ambitions for something greater. Isaac is a disappointment to his family. Isaac fumbles his chance at another relationship. Isaac sucks.
Failure and mediocrity is very much the point of Lemon. For 85 minutes, the film follows Isaac from one excruciating humiliation to the other without letting up. It's as if director Janicza Bravo assembled familiar white guy archetypes and tropes inside out, with the guts coming out of their eyeballs. While it makes for a baffling and rather uncomfortable watch—what Bravo terms a "stressful comedy"—in Isaac, we can see how ridiculous the men that populate comedies really are.
"I've noticed from my contemporaries that there's this genre of white-guy comedy: late 30s, early 40s, the guy is a total failure, but things seem to work out for him," Bravo told Vice in 2017. "Those movies tend to go through love, career, and family, and Lemon is a conversation with those three pieces."
I thought about Lemon a lot while reading Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo's most recent book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. In it she similarly explores the white male psyche, pointing to historical and contemporary events and figures to unravel the insidiousness of whiteness and mediocrity in our country. Lemon does the same—just with a lot more shit and piss jokes.
Bravo co-wrote Lemon with her then-husband, Brett Gelman, who also stars as Isaac. Both have described the film as an exorcism of sorts, fearing that their colleagues and friends were passing them by. "Lemon is about a plateau," she told Vulture. "I mean, I care about Isaac. I feel sympathy for him. But I also see him for what he is, which is someone who doesn’t deserve what he isn’t working for. A lot of these dudes don’t.”
Despite her credentials as a theater director and stylist, the film's darkly comedic setup, strange cast of characters, and exploration into the life of an irredeemably mediocre white man was not exactly what studios expected from an Afro-Latina director. In total, it took five years—and eight short films—for Lemon to get to the screen. So, to put this story of white failure out into the world, Bravo consistently had to demonstrate to studios and execs her skill and success as a Black, Latina, and Jewish woman. Talk about ironic.
While I think the tenor of Lemon is at times a bit sadistic, what I find most fascinating is the way that white male mediocrity is thoroughly lanced in the film. Bravo does not do this in an obvious way—there's no grandstanding or monologues about oppression. The words "privilege" and "racism" are never said. The focus is resolutely on Isaac and not, say, Nia Long's character Cleo, the film's only Black female character.
However, her concentration on Isaac isn't empathetic or loving; it's blistering. Lemon almost bullies its main character. But what Bravo's hyperfocus on the suffering of her white male character makes bare is the truth that anyone who is not a straight white man can see. How undeserving, rude, and inappropriate Isaac is—and by extension, white dudes like him. If the world worked a little differently, perhaps her point would be obvious to all.