Any film that can boast appearances by Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Root and Alex Ross Perry (in a quirky little cameo) is bound to catch my eye, so I was delighted to find Jason Schwartzman’s self-deprecating and beguilingly idiosyncratic persona at its near peak in Bob Byington’s latest film, 7 Chinese Brothers. Commanding attention throughout the confusingly-named comedy, the indie icon tries desperately to prop up an inconsistent film with his considerable talent. Ostensibly unsure as to what he has set out to accomplish, Byington has apparently written a film revolving about what Schwartzman’s life would have been like had he not pursued acting and wound up a dryly sarcastic bum.
Larry (Schwartzman) only enjoys two things: his dog, Arrow (expertly portrayed by the actor’s real-life pet), and being intoxicated. Whether “covertly” sipping tequila out of a convenient store soda cup or slyly popping pills proffered by his best friend and nursing home attendant, Major Norwood (Tunde Adebimpe), Larry is too depressed to face life sober. After losing his job at a family-style Italian restaurant (Hint: his uniform says “Buca” on it), Larry is nearly broke and with little prospects for the future. As providence steps in, a stop at his local Quick Lube presents him with an opportunity. A hilariously bizarre and completely one-sided conversation with the manager, Lupe (Jennifer Prediger), quickly lands Larry a new job — vacuuming cars — and he quickly finds himself actually enjoying his work.
While framed as a film about learning some great lesson about life and happiness, 7 Chinese Brothers never really builds from this assumed groundwork. As hilarious as it can be (and it can get uproariously so), at some point, the picture shifts into a “day in the life” narrative having no greater enlightening paradigm than simply “life is hard, try to be happy.” Having a script written almost entirely for Schwartzman, the film nearly becomes a series of improv comedy exercises in which the actor appears to be instructing for his fellow performers like day one at the iO Theater or The Second City. Flexing some physical comedy chops, he comes up with some truly outlandish characters, and it is only through his blatant reuse of these characters that we ever see Larry’s confidence falter. Although the actor is certainly adept alongside his various human counterparts, Schwartzman positively shines when coupled with his dog, Arrow. A wheezy, mostly-asleep French Bulldog, Arrow provides the perfect, reactionless counter to his owner’s barrage of nonsensical ramblings and derailed brainstorming. From the introductory scene onwards, Arrow is the real emotional heart of 7 Chinese Brothers, rendering his bipedal co-stars cold and impassive by comparison.
As charming as the lead actors be (including Arrow), they cannot make up for a lack of feeling in the generally barren narrative. Sparks of directorial ingenuity sprinkle the first half, yet Byington nearly mirrors his focal counterpart by becoming listless and merely drifts along — inactively watching Larry go about fixing his life. Standard existential tokens are offered (money does not make for a better life, happiness is what’s most important), while many avenues of introspection are left unexplored. (Whether intentionally left up to audience interpretation or edited by the studio to cut time, we will never know.) Ultimately, 7 Chinese Brothers comes across as an uneven film whose only use is a stage for Jason Schwartzman and his unbearably cute dog to show just how great they are together.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.