Michael Cera, in the background, and Brett Gelman in Lemon (Magnolia Pictures)

Lemon is an aggressively quirky, misanthropic film focusing on a singularly unpleasant human being. It almost works, but the main problem is the over-the-top direction.

Isaac Lachmann, a Los Angeles acting teacher, has trouble—to say the least—maintaining interpersonal relationships. He is pompous, easily irritable, insecure, and prone to yelling at people when they get too close. As essayed by director Janicza Bravo, who also serves as co-writer with husband Brett Gelman, who plays Isaac, there is not a single positive trait to be found in the man, but at least Gelman is committed to the role. He has certainly created a full characterization of someone you might meet in real life—and wish you hadn’t. Balding, with a full beard and boxy glasses, he walks as though he has a stick ramrodded into his ass. He is the type of man who, on a date with Cleo (Nia Long), an African American make-up artist, states as a point of conversation, “Most wigs made for African Americans are made of horse hair,” with zero awareness.

The first third works best, as we are introduced to Isaac, who lives with his blind girlfriend (played by sighted actress Judy Greer) in a sea of recrimination and dysfunction. We also see him working with movie star Alex (Michael Cera) and struggling actress Tracy (Gillian Jacobs), his students who are attempting Chekhov in easily the funniest part of the film. If anyone wants to start a bad Chekhov marathon, there may be no better person to hire than Cera, who is side-splittingly funny, the perfect parody of a terrible actor who has taken decades of acting classes. (His key line in explaining his acting technique: “Well, I used animal work, but I was a different animal for each scene.”) Isaac adores him, but he can’t keep anyone close for too long without belittling them, and he soon drives Alex away.

After his girlfriend leaves (though she was pretty much checked out at the start), Isaac is set adrift and searches for his equilibrium. He visits his family, which doesn’t help, and then tries his hand with Cleo, the only seemingly sane person in the film. The neuroses and quirks of everyone else are on full display, particularly with his family in scenes that seem like a twisted parody of indie film family dynamics, think The Royal Tenenbaums, though far less engaging and way more obnoxious. The movie is peppered with oddballs who are stranger than our protagonist, so there’s really no ballast for a viewer to hang onto. Luckily, these folk are played by an array of excellent character actors, including Rhea Perlman, Martin Starr, and Jeff Garlin.

Again, Lemon may have succeeded if not for odd, abrupt edits and emotionally distancing shots that scream: “This is an art film meant to disorient and challenge you!” The direction feels forced, while the acting comes across as natural. It’s a peculiar juxtaposition. What moves the film to abject unpleasantness, though, is the supremely irritating soundtrack, which plays dissonant chorales and instrumental stabs throughout. A deliberately alienating choice, it rips you right out of the proceedings.

Although Lemon certainly doesn’t want to be loved, its insistence on not being loved results in a strained, uninvolving film, despite the best efforts of the cast.

Directed by Janicza Bravo
Written by Bravo and Brett Gelman
Released by Magnolia Pictures
USA. 83 min. Not rated
With Gelman, Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Shiri Appleby, Jeff Garlin, Megan Mullally, Nia Long, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, and David Paymer