Jason Schwartzman has come a long way since drumming the intro to The OC. Though I’d still consider his best role to be his first – Rushmore‘s Max Fischer, who, for all his youthful irony, was very much in the Wes Anderson character mould. As Larry in Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers, Schwartzman crafts a unique character of his own, even bringing his French bulldog Arrow along for the ride.
Schwartzman is the lynchpin of the film, which could’ve gone horribly wrong with a different lead actor. On paper, I imagine the role of Larry comes off as someone only vaguely formed. He’s an irrational, uninspired alcoholic who jumps between jobs, hangs out with his grandma (Olympia Dukakis) and best friend (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) at a retirement home, and finds comfort in conversations with his sluggish dog. The ‘plot’ kicks into gear when, after he is fired from his job at a bar for constantly stealing alcohol, Larry keys his co-employees’ car.
It’s a role not unlike Kevin Corrigan’s in Results, but where in that film Guy Pearce and Coby Smulders get most of the attention, 7 Chinese Brothers is almost entirely dependent on Schwartzman. Luckily, he’s great, departing from the pedantic, neurotic typecasting he’s seen since Rushmore to a slacker with a far more physical sense of humour—constantly showing off his ‘fat kid getting out of the pool’ routine, and talking nonsense to his equally-sluggish dog. While I do question how well the script would stand up without the impressive improv and comic timing of Schwartzman (and Dukakis actually, who apparently came up with a few of the film’s funniest scenes while shooting), Byington is under no illusion of grandeur, he writes an unsympathetic protagonist in a low-key, dilapidated world.
Coming to prominence around the same time as mid-noughties mumblecore bigwigs like Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, Byington has worked with the likes of Andrew Bujalski in the past, and it shows, particularly in his deadpan style and cast. Thematically, however, I’d argue that Byington finds more pleasure in seeing his white boy suffer, given Larry’s trajectory is pretty much straight down, direly struggling with love, employment and family at different points.
When the plot takes what would, in another film, be considered a sad turn, it makes for a very effective tonal clash as Byington subverts the rampant egomania of the hackneyed American indie through a series of hilariously self-indulgent eulogy speeches. There’s a degree of authenticity when a ‘quirky’ film commits to its tone in moments like that, and the accompanying organ score by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio helps make the stakes seem consistently and dismally low. Clocking in at 70-something minutes, Byington is very careful not to overstay his welcome, and that’s probably a good call. For a film that revels in the awkwardness that comes with realism and veracity, it’s edited pitch perfectly, a valuable trait for a deadpan flick like this.
The supporting cast is a who’s who of familiar American indie faces, featuring Adebimpe, who’s popped up in a few festival flicks recently, Girls’ Alex Karpovsky, and Eleanore Pienta, who plays Lupe, Larry’s boss at his new job at Quick Lube (the name of an auto repair shop, in case you were wondering). Lupe, maybe unintentionally, plays the audience surrogate, in that she is sort of apprehensive of Larry at first, but gradually buys into his forthright sense of humour. Perhaps Pienta and the rest of the talented ensemble are under-utilized, but that being said, I’m not sure the film would have the same effect if it didn’t indulge in Larry, in all his narcissism and absurdity, to the extent that it does.
These sort of American mumblecore-y indies are proving to be some of the more pleasant surprises on this year’s festival circuit. Sure there’s nothing particularly momentous about the story outside of the simple form of a character study, but 7 Chinese Brothers is none-the-less a very funny, resonant and, most importantly, self-aware film that allows a grade-A performer to show off his deadpan chops.