As broad of a comedy and cultural lecture as you’re likely to ever see, the Italian-Canadian production Road to the Lemon Grove is packed with the sort of old country humour that some viewers will devour with vigor and others will find painful to sit through. Although it deserves some points for unapologetically and confidently committing to a specific cultural point of view and an admittedly bizarre, but ambitious aesthetic, Road to the Lemon Grove is a whole lot of cinematic cheese with very little sauce and pasta.
Although Road to the Lemon Grove is credited to director and longtime cinematographer Dale Hildebrand, the driving force behind this madcap yarn about a family warring over an inheritance is star and co-writer Charly Chiarelli, a performer, writer, and lecturer who’s been referred to as “the Sicilian Spalding Gray,” and it’s a reputation that’s surprisingly appropriate when one considers that the stories he weaves are personal, silly, and educational in equal measure. That balance of introspection, information, and homespun yuks is applied to the tale of Calogero (Chiarelli), an aging Canadian professor and cultural vlogger who just lost his father, Antonio (also Chiarelli, who’s stuck in limbo, unable to enter heaven until all his worldly goals have been accomplished). Calogero is set to be the sole heir of Antonio’s estate – which includes a massive lemon grove in Sicily – and the other members of the family, led by the scheming Vincenzo (Burt Young, who seems like he had all of his scenes filmed in a single day while sitting at a table), aren’t thrilled. Cologero has fourteen days to head to Sicily and get all the proper paperwork signed in person, or else the lemon grove and everything else will go to Vincenzo’s family, who want to raze the property and build an amusement park and resort. After Vincenzo’s plans to keep the contents of the will from Cologero end up backfiring, the son (who’s also haunted by his father’s ghost) returns to Sicily and enlists the help of an aging actress (Rosella Brescia) to keep the property in the family.
Right from the outset, Road to the Lemon Grove is hammier than a pan full of pancetta grease, with a style and deployment of corny jokes that’s cranked to thirteen at all times. It certainly helps going into Road to the Lemon Grove if you’re Italian or Italian at heart, but it’s more beneficial if you’re the type of person who likes to have a warm glass of milk just before bedtime at 8pm and just after The Lawrence Welk Show wraps up. Road to the Lemon Grove isn’t just a love letter to the old country, but also a resolutely outdated sort of comedy that has all but vanished; somewhat for worse, but mostly for the better. It’s the kind of comedy aimed at people who find the art of shouting and wild gesticulating hilarious or still think a gag about slapping a random woman on the ass is funny and not in the slightest bit creepy. And don’t worry if you’re a mangiacake and don’t understand all of the cultural humour or references, because Chiarelli will stop the film dead in its tracks to explain some of the film’s jokes in painful detail via his character’s online blog and addressing the viewer directly through the camera. If these sorts of things tickle your funny bone, Road to the Lemon Grove could be a pleasing, time wasting throwback. If it isn’t, you’re in for a long 90 minutes.
The good news is that Hildebrand brings a shocking, disarming, and possibly even unnecessary amount of energy to Chiarelli’s material. Hildebrand moves through every scene (or at least the ones that aren’t flashbacks to Calogero’s younger years or the times Chiarelli stops to explain the material) like Baz Luhrmann on an espresso bender. It’s all quite flashy, sometimes even disorienting, but if nothing else, Hildebrand’s kinetic approach to comedy keeps things moving along rather briskly and inventively. It’s a somewhat modernist approach to moldy material that really only finds its footing about thirty minutes in, once Calogero has made his pilgrimage back to Sicily. Once on Italian soil, Hildebrand eases off the gas pedal, and allows the gorgeous natural scenery to speak for itself. It makes Sicily look like a pretty nice place to live and visit, which might not be a hard thing to accomplish, but the final two-thirds of Road to the Lemon Grove offer nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of the film’s opening portion. It all goes off the rails wildly during a climactic, food fueled showdown that doesn’t make a lick of sense between the hero and a heavy sent to Sicily on Vincenzo’s behalf (Nick Mancuso), but for a little while there, Hildebrand is doing his best to keep such listless material afloat.
Road to the Lemon Grove might have a wonky script that would probably work better as a one man stage show than a feature film, an awkward leading man, and obviously low production values on the whole, but what it does have is a good heart and a sense of passion. Even at the film’s lowest points (of which there are many, but none that I particularly want to single out or pick on), the love that Chiarelli has for this story and his characters is apparent. Buried within all the slapstick, mugging, exposition dumps, and slaughtering of even the simplest of punchlines lies some food for thought. It earnestly wants to tell a tale about loss of cultural identity and the sacrifices made by those who left their lives behind in search of greener pastures. It would be a lot better if it wasn’t constantly trying to make jokes, but the desire to tell a story from the heart is certainly apparent throughout Road to the Lemon Grove. It’s a bad movie, and none of this works as well as I’m sure the filmmakers and its star intended, but there’s also something endearing in its desire to speak to several different generations of Italian immigrants at the same time.
Road to the Lemon Grove opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, August 30, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Road to the Lemon Grove:
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