Sundance Film Festival 2017: 'Lemon' + 'Wilson'

Michael Cera and Brett Gelman in Lemon (2017)

This year's Sundance Film Festival delivers misanthropy with two new comedies, Lemon and Wilson.


Director: Janicza Bravo
Cast: Brett Gelman, Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Nia Long
Rated: NR
Studio: Houston King Productions
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-01-22 (Sundance Film Festival)


Rated: R
Director: Craig Johnson
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Judy Greer, Laura Dern
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2017
US Premiere: 2017-03-24 (Limited release)
US date: 2017-01-22 (Sundance Film Festival)

Everybody loves a good misanthrope: Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray have built their careers playing redeemable jerks who say whatever is on their unfiltered minds. This year, the Sundance Film Festival delivers the misanthropy with two new comedies, Lemon and Wilson.

For the first, imagine the precise visual aesthetic of Wes Anderson filtered through the off-kilter sensibilities of Napoleon Dynamite. It sounds promising, but Janicza Bravo’s debut feature seems content to throw weirdness at the screen and hopes it distracts from a lack of story. After the novelty wears off, in about ten-minutes, you're left with an endurance test that will only appeal to esoteric tastes.

Isaac (Brett Gelman) is a loser. Not one of those lovable losers who keeps losing his girlfriend to the hunk next door or dropping his glasses down the garbage disposal. He’s a borderline sociopath with limited social skills and unlimited murderous fantasies. In fact, the entire cast of Lemon is comprised of characters so ill-equipped to navigate the world that you’ll wonder how they survived to adulthood.

After his blind girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) leaves him, Isaac stumbles from one unlikely predicament to the next, looking a lot like a deranged and bearded Big Bird. A college acting teacher, Isaac feeds his passive-aggressive tendencies by berating the students. His prized pupil is Alex (Michael Cera), who masters his "instrument" by assigning a different power animal to each scene. They're an unnervingly good match: a dinner date between Alex and Isaac goes predictably wrong, ending with an odd wrestling match and some dry humping. “I should have poisoned you,” Isaac laments after his attempted molestation fails.

The episodes continue. Isaac goes to his family’s house for an uncomfortable dinner and an evening of non sequiturs. His crazy sister-in-law throws a glass of water into the wastebasket. The family psychiatrist (David Paymer) reveals too many details about his ex-wife (“I hear she’s thriving!”). Finally, the entire family gathers around a piano and sings a little ditty about matzah balls.

A few scenes later, Isaac starts a new relationship with a black make-up artist named Paula (Dionne Audain). For reasons unknown, she takes a liking to Isaac and invites him along to a family cookout. “I didn’t know there would be accents,” Isaac says after meeting Paula’s Jamaican cousin, after which he proceeds to offend everyone else with his ugly banter. This rudeness might have worked as a joke if we liked Isaac. We might have empathized with his awkwardness or his desire to please Paula. Unfortunately, his rudeness doesn't stem from naïvete but an apparently willful ignorance. Isaac is just a jerk who says terrible things.

Neither does he live in a world where he might make sense. It's as if the wacky sidekicks and best friends from every other movie got together and started talking only to one another. The actors try their best, but they’re tied to a sinking anchor. It’s embarrassing to watch a gifted actor like David Paymer flailing like a drunken boxer.

Woody Harrelson in Wilson (2017)

Wilson offers a slightly sweeter take on its crude protagonist. Unlike Isaac, Wilson (Woody Harrelson) doesn’t hate interacting with people. In a restaurant full of empty tables -- and one patron -- you can bet that Wilson will pull up a chair and start drilling the lone diner with questions. He hilariously chooses the urinal closest to the bathroom’s sole occupant and peppers him with questions about child rearing.

Wilson blames the rest of the world for his inability to connect: he sees it in everyone else around him. He despises smartphones and computers. “Modern civilization is a scam,” he preaches during his opening voiceover. His had a wife named Pippi (Laura Dern), he says, but that’s over now. Pregnant when she eft Wilson 17 years ago, she didn't tell him when their daughter was born. This provides the start of a plot: after discovering the wonders of Google search, Wilson sets about finding his teenage daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) and patching things up with Pippi. This might be his last shot at happiness, as the cliché goes, or least his best chance to have a meaningful conversation with someone.

Directed by Craig Johnson and adapted from his graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Wilson should be much funnier than it is. It includes a few riotous moments to be sure, as when Wilson contaminates a Bible study group with his brand of atheism, but mostly, if offers us only chuckles.

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Even without a helpful framework, Harrelson fits into Wilson’s uncomfortably tight skin with ease. When he breaks down the absurdity of American consumer culture or attempts to compliment the swastika tattoo on a biker’s face, Harrelson is convincing. He helps to set the film's quirky charm, even if you aren’t laughing. When Wilson and Pippi talk about the good times they once had and the impossibility of their reconciliation, you can feel the weight of their shared experience.

Still, we’ve seen this story a hundred times. This means its effectiveness depends upon our belief that the misanthrope can change. Sometimes it works, as when Bill Murray undergoes genuine change in Groundhog Day, and sometimes it doesn’t work, as when Bill Murray tries to undergo genuine change in St. Vincent. Harrelson helps us to believe that Wilson is just terribly disappointed in people, and not just a bad person himself. Wilson, is a smart feel-good movie that aims to deliver a little truth too. If it doesn’t always succeed, it comes up with 90 minutes of human connection. Even Wilson can be happy with that.

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