Jason Schwartzman works his particular brand of magic again, managing to salvage some of the directionless film around him.
7 Chinese Brothers
Jason Schwartzman has perfected the alchemy of the self-centered but likable asshole, a petty narcissist out looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong places who, despite his hardened outer shell, really does have his heart in the right place. We’ve seen it before, born and arguably perfected during his work with his pal Wes Anderson, the character might have reached its peak in last year’s acerbic Listen Up, Philip. And the truth is, there are few other actors working today who could have made Listen Up, Philip watchable, let alone made audiences root for such a vain prick. But Schwartzman did all that and more. And now, with Bob Byington’s (Somebody Up There Likes Me) 7 Chinese Brothers, Schwartzman is working his magic again, while managing to salvage some of the film around him.
The beats of 7 Chinese Brothers are rather simple. Schwartzman plays Larry, a hard-drinking, hardly working schlub, who spends his days motor mouthing through one-sided conversations with his so-ugly-he’s-cute bulldog, Arrow. Larry’s life is going nowhere, and he seems happy with that. But things take a turn when he’s fired from his serving job for stealing booze and drinking on the job. Judging from Larry’s response, it’s easy to see he’s been here before. In fact, not much in his life changes at first. That same night Larry hits the clubs with his buddy Major Norwood (Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio), pops some pills, and wakes up on his couch the next day. The one thing Larry does right in his life is visit his foul-mouthed grandma (Olympia Dukakis) in her assisted living home. Even as she continues to rebuff his pleas for money, he keeps visiting.
It seems only by chance that Larry winds up working at Quick Lube, vacuuming cars and stealing change. Soon, though, Larry realizes that he likes both this new job and his new boss (Eleanore Pienta) — a feeling that’s complicated by Norwood’s mysterious skills with women.
What’s clear from start to finish is that Larry doesn’t have much of a filter. Time and again he speaks out of line, uttering every humorous and asinine thing that pops into his head. Not only that, but he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks either. It’s this unfiltered Schwartzman that keeps 7 Chinese Brothers up and running for as long as it does (and the film is brisk, clocking in at 76 minutes).
The narrative, on paper, makes sense and offers Larry some room to grow, but the film seems uninterested in any sort of progression, meandering often. Granted there are films and filmmakers who make this work, building their films to embody the marooned and stagnant characters they have set out to study. But here the story beats that Byington does choose to hit and follow, often do little to help us understand Larry or help him understand himself (with one particular subplot about his boss’ ex-husband and his petty theft being the worst of all).
Films like 7 Chinese Brothers are inherently challenging to make. Most movies are built upon one of two things: the movement of plot or the growth of character. Which is not to say that films about directionless people aren’t valuable or enjoyable (many of Schwartzman’s characters are in fact rather directionless or otherwise inhibited). But rather that the challenge is particularly great to find a way to invest an audience in someone going nowhere and wanting nothing (Larry claims to want a lot but does very little to get any of it). And, arguably, the only reason we invest in Larry at all is Arrow, Schwartzman’s real-life pet and reaction shot master. Not only does Arrow feel like the emotional core of the film, but he also steals damn near every scene he’s in.
On the technical end, the score by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio is energetic and subdued all at once, bringing a nice forward push that might have otherwise been absent from the proceedings. At times, though, the music seems to take on a life of it’s own, diverging from the scene to become an independent and less resonant song.
Finally, while the film is clearly flawed, the most obvious misstep seems to have been born in the editing room. Pieced together by Robert Greene and Leah Marino, 7 Chinese Brothers doesn’t ever feel clunky or haphazard, but it does feel lost rather often, like chunks of time have been excised or forgotten. While not quite fatal, it is hard not to feel muddled or confounded when you can’t even figure out where the scene is taking place or what sort of odd architecture a building has.
For all the mess that is the film’s final third, 7 Chinese Brothers remains a light-on-its-feet comedy shouldered along by a solid performance from Schwartzman, by turns hilarious, caustic, and ultimately mournful. And while many might find themselves wondering what the point is, it’s hard to flaw a film that, unlike so many, refuses to judge its characters, and refuses to tell them how they ought to be living.