'Lemon' Is the Feel-Bad Movie of the Summer, and Brett Gelman & Janicza Bravo Are OK with That
"Where are you?" Fair question; due to unforeseen circumstances, I find myself speaking to Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman -- respectively the director and star on the idiosyncratic new comedy Lemon -- via a bluetooth connection beamed through my Subaru’s speakers. "If I sound like I’m in a fishbowl, that’s why," I apologized. I live in constant anxiety and paranoia over my audibility, and this wasn't helping.
"Oh," Bravo tells me. "We like anxiety and paranoia,"
After watching Lemon twice, I can’t say I’m surprised. The film hangs in the orbit of Gelman’s character, Isaac Lachmann, a pent-up, emotionally stunted, self-oriented, and self-aggrandizing wreck of a man living in Los Angeles. His existence is a flaming, multi-ton asteroid freefalling through every layer of failure and disappointment: He’s a struggling actor known mostly for a portfolio of grim commercial work; he teaches acting classes to unforgiving college students; he’s the family black sheep; and his girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer), is over him and ready to leave. Lemon is a colorful, odd movie where every laugh is haunted by Isaac’s relentlessly unaccountable angst. I highly recommend it, of course.
When presented with an opening to dive right into Lemon’s feel-bad qualities, I took it, intent on working through the film’s human awfulness to get to the bottom of its substance.
Thrillist: You said paranoia and anxiety are something you actually seek out. You like those feelings.
Janicza Bravo: Yeah. We like worry, and anxiety, and stress…
Brett Gelman: I don’t know if we like it, but it definitely likes us.
That's true for most people, although rarely do we embrace the fact that they have jitters or fear.
Bravo: Exactly. I was going to say, I don’t know if it’s denial, or if it’s a rejection of. Do you really want to engage with those feelings? I am into engaging with the things that I don’t want to have, or the things that I don’t like about myself, or the things that I would like to work on, and I feel it’s safe to say, based on at least the work that’s coming out of comedy -- as we were working in the comedy space -- most people are working on things that make them feel nice, or good, or just okay. We’re deciding to use our comedy to work on the things that make us feel bad.
That puts you in a whole other league from Isaac, who refuses to address the things he feels that are bad.
Bravo: I think you’re totally right, with Isaac, and I don’t know -- to say it’s a refusal actually makes him aware, or makes him seem slightly engaged with himself. I think that he doesn’t have the tools. He, I believe, lacks social tools. He’s definitely not socialized. But I also think he doesn’t have the tools. I don’t know you, but it feels like you have them based on how we’re talking, and the tools that Brett has, and that I have, which is this sort of awareness of the things that at least we don’t like about ourselves, or the things that we’d like to fix, or that we think require a little more engagement.
I do feel that Isaac doesn’t have the language for what is wrong. He’s feeling it, and he’s in it, but he’s submerged. He’s sunk. He doesn’t have the vocabulary for the thing that’s wrong with him. A lot of what I call the second act of the film, the [scenes with the] family seder ... that section is supposed to show the audience that our protagonist, where he came from, the root of how he came to be, did not prepare him or give him the tools for a person that can deal with act one or act three.
Gelman: He was brought up in a womb of low self-esteem, which was normalized for him. So inevitably, when he steps out into the real world, he’s going to feel like a victim, and it’s going to feel like the world is attacking him, rather than the reality that he doesn’t possess, again, the tools to deal with the challenges that life throws your way, that life throws at everyone.
How does that character, who is so submerged get the tools when they don’t even know that they need them?
Bravo: I don’t know how you get the tools! I really don’t. I feel that so much of the film is an exorcism for us, right? It’s, "I’m not that, right? I hope? Right? Maybe? Am I not? If I write it down, it means I’m not bad." Because I do think that, unfortunately -- and again, this sort of speaks to this generalization about movies that make you feel good, or the comedy space for the most part -- we kept seeing these films where things seem to work out for people, and I was wondering, "Well, what if things just don’t work out?"
It’s okay, maybe, if things don’t work out. The path isn’t clear for everyone, and the only way to be okay with that is to laugh at my own feelings of not belonging, my own feelings of invisibility.
Gelman: It’s definitely not a manipulation.
Bravo: It’s supposed to feel less lonely. What we hope is that, like, we say, "This is how we feel, and we’re putting this out there because we have felt this way, we feel this way a lot, and it can be incredibly lonely. But Brett and Janicza found each other at these different places in their lives, dealing with this list of issues, and it felt a lot less lonely to be able to share that together." We hope that if there’s one thing to get from Lemon, it’s that this space is one that I hope one does not feel so lonely in.
Gelman: Yeah, and that a lot of fixing oneself is in the little things, not in the grand swipes of life.
Gelman: Swoops. Or swipes? I don’t know. [laughs]
Bravo: I think it’s swoops!
Gelman: At the end of the day, this is about opening your mail and getting the car that doesn’t work anymore towed, not to ruin the end of the film. It is wrapped up in these small baby steps, to quote What About Bob?. Baby steps. The last thing that we want to do is make people feel bad. However, we’re definitely not delusional, and know that some people may be made to feel bad by watching the film. But yeah, it’s to make you feel good that you’re not alone with these pains that are in the deep recesses of your soul.
Bravo: Someone had said to us that the film feels sort of timely. I was like, "Oh, we wrote this six years ago." I guess it’s cool that it feels timely, but we’ve been feeling this way for a while, and I do think that there’s a lot of awfulness. But sometimes, that’s something that I want to feel, and sometimes that’s something that I want to feel connected to. I guess I should be more articulate about this; it’s not that I want to feel bad, it’s that I do feel bad, a lot, and when I can relate to other bad feelings, it just makes me feel like I’m more okay, and it makes me feel like, "Oh, maybe this is just some aspect of being on this planet." It’s sort of warming to know that others feel this way as well.
Gelman: And then you can laugh at it. I think some people watch Raging Bull, or they watch The Piano Teacher, and I think they’re more, maybe, able to process an antihero in a dramatic context, where people more want comedy to take care of them. But that’s not really taking care of people. That’s just providing escape, which sometimes is necessary. It’s not like we don’t like films that provide that escape, especially when they’re done with a high sense of craft. But comedy, too, should make us able to laugh at the darkness.
Bravo: I think you’re just saying that it’s okay for this to exist under that banner.
Gelman: Yeah. And we spend so much of our lives doing math problems on how to feel good. It’s such a waste of time. You’re going to feel how you feel. It’s hard to just set up a way that you’re going to live your life that is going to be just endlessly happy and healthy. That’s impossible.
Do you think people will see Lemon and say, "that's not me"? It's like Get Out in that way, and seems like an important realization for people to have.
Bravo: I agree. First of all, to be remotely in the same sentence as that movie is wonderful, so thank you, deeply, from the bottom of my heart. But yeah, we’ve definitely had some people come out of the movie and be, like, aggressive toward us, about feeling, I don’t know, cheated, or feeling angry, or like some aspect of their personality was being put on display and they feel upset about that. I think some of that has to do with what Brett was talking about: You go to comedy and you expect a certain kind of exchange. "I paid to feel this way, so why are you doing this to me?" But what I hope is what you just said, that you see aspects of Isaac that maybe you relate to, or you go, "Am I doing some of this?" But really you should not see yourself, like, "I am not that, but here’s an exercise in the most extreme version of these feelings."
The film is also not rooted in reality. It’s not naturalistic at all. It’s so absurd, it’s almost surreal. There are elements of it that are dreamlike. We’re playing with time. I’m sort of complimented when people are aggressively mad at us. It means I cut deep. At least you want people to feel something. For people to feel nothing is more upsetting. I guess if there’s rage, that’s cool, because it is cutting into some feeling that maybe a person doesn’t want to engage with. There is something sort of exciting there, but really, it’s not meant to upset. It’s meant to present, and show, this display of the most extreme of this kind of awfulness, like you said.
Lemon takes a satirical razor to the "white guy" comedy, where a schlubby guy. That an area of interest? Do you two plan on continuing subversion in the future?
Bravo: No. We are continuing to work together, but I’d made other short films leading up to Lemon that had these conversations with privilege, and mediocrity, and this feeling of limitation or being limited, or being treated like you are limited. Lemon feels like the end road of that conversation. That’s not to say that in my other work there isn’t engagement with race, and with whiteness, but I think some of the discomfort from this film is -- and I can’t speak to the world -- is that in America, whiteness is treated as the invisible. I think for people of color, white is not invisible. It’s very present. When I walk out of my house, I’m processing whiteness constantly and processing "other" constantly, because of how people treat me or how I navigate space. I’m just aware of myself in a way that I don’t know that Brett has to be. So that will always be a part of my work, but this kind of conversation with "white guy comedy," "flailing comedy," that was our final engagement with that space. For me.
Gelman: The thing I’m writing is sort of like that!
Bravo: But it’s different.
Gelman: It is different. Yeah, we wanted to make a comment on that type of movie, but we wanted to put in real consequences, real emotional, psychological consequences to that type character.
Bravo: I just find that some of those films are interchangeable, and I really don’t want for this to sound like a critique of my contemporaries. I do believe that people work on the thing that is close to them, and that’s fine. I’m not begrudging that. But when I wanted to be working in comedy as well, and I have a particular kind of humor, and I didn’t feel like there was room for me in this space. A lot of my peers were making a certain kind of thing, so this is my effort at that certain kind of thing. This is my feelings as a woman of color projected in this space.
This interview was edited and condensed