Jason Schwartzman has managed to play just about every version of a loser over the years, so it’s no surprise that when taking on one who has simply lost his job and has no will to seek anything better, he’s spot-on. What is a surprise is how he’s able to take such a character who hardly does anything and make him feel full and thus enjoyable to watch. But that’s exactly what he does in Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers.
After being fired from his job for stealing, Larry (Schwartzman) gets a new job at a Quick Lube. He quickly falls for his boss Lupe (Eleanore Pienta), even though he doesn’t seem to have a chance with her. When he’s not busy cracking jokes at work, he goes to visit his grandma (Olympia Dukakis) and Major, an orderly (Tunde Adebimpe) at the nursing home who seems to be Larry’s only friend. Between sips of booze-filled fountain drinks and moments talking with his dog, Larry drifts around without a purpose, trying to survive as a full-blown slacker in today’s rat race world.
Larry isn’t necessarily a bad guy. Sure, he keys his boss’ car, but he feels bad about it afterward. He’s an alcoholic, but he’s never violent or even angry. He just drinks enough to have a buzz all day long. He doesn’t try at work, but it’s not because he hates the thought of working, just because he hates all the places he’s worked at. In most movies, we’d see a bad guy and then root for him to redeem himself. In 7 Chinese Brothers, there’s not really any urgency for Larry to turn his life around, and that’s okay.
For all the ambiguity around the movie, there’s no questioning the fact that Schwartzman is hilarious in this role. Larry has a sense of humor that you’ll love to watch on the screen for 70 minutes but would hate to spend a long roadtrip with. He cracks lame jokes, comes up with elaborate physical gags, and derives pleasure from telling blatant lies. The movie is basically built around watching Schwartzman carry this character along, which heaps a lot of pressure on the shoulders of one actor. Luckily, he doesn’t disappoint, and the film is consistently enjoyable in all its parts, purely because of how much fun watching this performance is. Charming is such an overused word when talking about these sort of quiet indie films, but it’s really the only word that fully applies here.
His conversations with his dog may be the most enjoyable scenes of all. Played by Schwartzman’s real-life pet, Arrow provides the perfect wall for Larry to bounce his jokes and his innermost thoughts against. It’s only in the scenes with Arrow where Larry is anything other than the supposedly underwhelmed man he is in public. When listening to The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” Larry confesses that the song sums up how he feels all the time, specifically the line: “But I can’t back down now because I pushed the other guys too far.” That’s the sort of thing that no one would actually say to someone else, and it’d be extremely pretentious if Larry said that into a mirror, but when talking to his dog it feels natural and poignant. Arrow serves as a wonderful device, and that device is used with great skill by Byington.
I wouldn’t say that 7 Chinese Brothers is an over-the-top funny film, as I rarely found myself laughing out loud. But I did consistently chuckle throughout. It’s amusing as much as anything else, but that’s not really a problem. In fact, it seems like the witty nature of this film could have more of a mass appeal than most of today’s straight comedies.
Still, for how nice the individual moments are, there’s just not enough that happens in the movie for it to feel like a full, satisfying experience. Granted, the fact that it’s less than 80 minutes keeps things from dragging on at all, but perhaps a few more minutes could have been used to throw some semblance of an arc into the story. Then again, for a character with no ambition, life isn’t going to go anywhere. No matter how big of a sample size you look at, he’s ultimately going to be right where he was at the start. So maybe it’s fitting that just like Larry’s life, the film’s ride isn’t all that intense. It’s easy and enjoyable, and that’s all it needs to be.
Thanks to a wonderful performance by Jason Schwartzman, 7 Chinese Brothers has enough chuckles to make it an enjoyable film.