Do you find Brett Gelman hilarious? It’s not a rhetorical question: You either consider the comedian’s act, located at the intersection of Adult Swim and aggressively annoying, as the epitome of edgy, avant–ha-ha humor or you probably don’t consider it at all. When deployed correctly in small doses – see the staggeringly great Amazon Britcom Fleabag – Gelman’s subway-frotteur vibe can add the perfect toxic aftertaste. And even if the weaponized uncomfortability of something like his Dinner in America short isn’t your bag, you have to admire the sheer commitment of taking a premise to maximum squirmitude territory. There’s the nagging sense, however, that all this signature ironic ugliness is just a one-note screech replayed in a loop, and that someone is mistakenly equating being weird and skin-crawling for actually being funny. Which brings us to Lemon.
Cowritten by and starring Gelman as an actor mulling around the desperate, I’ll-do-anything margins of Hell Ay showbiz, this vignette mash-up directed by the comedian’s creative partner-in-crime (and life) Janicza Bravo brims with the comic’s sensibility. As such, it’s a litmus test for whether watching the man do his negative creep thing for 90 minutes is your idea of genuinely boundary-pushing, or shock-treatment insightful, or even laugh-worthy. Most of us will fail this test. The longer you follow his onscreen loser Isaac as he slouches from teaching bad acting classes to bad commercial auditions (for a new adult-diaper line: “Incontinence is not just a lady problem … it’s an everybody problem”) to bad family dinners to bad dates, the more you start to wonder whether the movie is transmitting anti-humor on a frequency that only dogs and stoned college freshman can truly hear.
A group of Silver Lake Comedy All-Stars (Michael Cera sporting a Napoleon Dynamite ‘do, Gillian Jacobs, Judy Greer, Megan Mullally, Martin Starr) and some old familiar faces (hi there, Rhea Perlman and The Jeffersons‘ Marla Gibbs!) show up to aid and abet. UnREAL‘s Shiri Appleby proves that someone manically dancing to a Passover song about matzoh balls while pregnant can, against all odds, seem inspired, while Nia Long reminds you that she can do no wrong no matter what film she’s in, period, full stop. There’s a little bit of white-liberal mockery over here, some Lynchian weirdness over there and when all else fails, hey, how about some comically loud, explosive diarrhea? Mostly, though, when Lemon hands you “jokes,” you get tiresomely passive-aggressive, patience-testing lemonade, which is probably really urine spiked with lysergic acid and some other unidentified boy fluid being forced down your throat, because that’s the film’s idea of a “genius” deadpan gag.
So we find ourselves circling back to that original query: Are you a hardcore Gelmaniac or not? If so, check out this latest entry in the are-we-making-fun-of-rancid-hipsterism-or-embodying-it genre – this is as close to a pure, uncut dose of the ol’ Brettster as you’re likely to get on the big screen. Everyone else may not feel like they’re watching a bad-trip comedy so much as perilously-close-to-bad movie. You can accuse Lemon of a lot of things. False advertising in the title, however, is not one of them.