Any ad student (or, hell, any loyal fan of Mad Men) is familiar with Volkswagen’s 1960 “Lemon” ad. Below a black-and-white photo of an iconic VW bug, three columns of text described how the car featured above was, well, a shitter, a dud of a car full of factory defects. But because of VW's super-duper quality assurance standards, this car wouldn't be shipped. After all, what hope is there for a lemon in the real world?

A similar existential question is asked by writer-director Janicza Bravo in her feature-length debut, Lemon. At the heart of the story is her husband and cowriter, Brett Gelman, who here plays down-on-his-luck Isaac, a middle-aged actor, who is more than just the film's protagonist but dressed in a frumpy pale-yellow suit, very much its title character. While his drama students Tracy and Alex (played brilliantly by Gillian Jacobs and Michael Cera) are coming into their own and landing international gigs, Isaac's getting pretty shitty roles (literally), if he gets roles at all. His latest gig is a commercial for adult diapers.

And things aren't much better at home. His girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) may be blind, but she's finally seen she can do much better, leaving Isaac alone for one hell of a midlife pity party.

Bravo is not at all afraid of covering underrepresented peoples in her films (her 2013 short film Gregory Go Boom, also featuring Gelman and Cera, had a main protagonist bound to a wheelchair). She's also a writer for FX’s show Atlanta, which covers race in a way that's both relevant and hilarious. Both the film and show play well with making the audience uncomfortable to make a point as well, which makes Cera a good muse, because he's one of the best in the game at delivering that. And, indeed, Lemon’s drama-class scenes, featuring a deadpan Cera pretentiously talking about channeling different animals when preparing for a role, are some of the funniest in the movie.

But sometimes Lemon is unbearably uncomfortable with no easily accessible reason. After Alex lets Isaac know he may not be returning to class, Isaac responds by writing an epithet (white n*****) on his car. Since Alex doesn't return for the rest of the film, there's no real explanation of why Isaac would take his rage to such a vulgar -- and well, awkward -- place. It's also hard to know if we're laughing at girlfriend Ramona, or with her. In a moment of pure girl power, she lets Isaac have it: “I deserve to be with someone who wants to be with it,” but some scenes rely on easy situational humor made possible by her blindness.

It's the lack of a point overall, though, that really makes Lemon fall short. Frankly, after Cera exits halfway through the film, the film loses a lot of its steam. An increasingly defeated Isaac plays wallflower on one party after another (the first with his eccentric Jewish family, and the second with new girlfriend Cleo (Nia Long). These scenes feel less like a throughline and more like SNL skits playing on their respective crutches (Jewish jokes, and a clueless Isaac trying to interact with Cleo's black family). The humor sometimes lands, but we completely abandon Isaac's personal life for a good 30 minutes, and are supposed to care when Ramona returns at the film's end.

Obviously, the film was trying to hard to play on the theme of being a lemon, i.e. a failure. Not only do we have Isaac's life falling apart, but the whole film is cast with a dim, yellow overlay, giving it an aged, outdated feel. Isaac's wardrobe and apartment decor is fitting of a has-been as well -- in fact, until super talkative sister Ruthie (Shiri Appleby) pulls out an iPhone, I had no idea we were in 2017. And surely as a salute to the VW ad, Isaac’s dud of a car gets towed at the film's conclusion. You won't miss it: A whole five or so minutes is dedicated to the belabored process. But why? Why do we, as an audience, have to watch a car get slowly hooked up and pulled away. It may work in concert with the art direction, frenetic score, and offbeat acting to create a certain tone, but it'd be nice if that tone served some semblance of a message. At least David Lowery's A Ghost Story, released earlier this year, coupled long, action-less sequences with an overarching message. In terms of plot, Lemon just doesn't offer enough. Hollywood’s done the has-been-actor bit many a time before, and some of those films, thankfully, weren't actually lemons.