7 Chinese Brothers | Bob Byington | USA | 2015 | 76 min
Edwanike Harbour checked off several items on the quirky indie comedy checklist while watching 7 Chinese Brothers, the latest from director Bob Byington (Somebody Up There Likes Me). Unfortunately, “quirky” and “comedy” remain unchecked.
I really wanted to like this movie. I really, really wanted to like this movie.
Billed as a quirky indie comedy, 7 Chinese Brothers stars Jason Schwartzman (check) and Tunde Adibempe of TV on the Radio (double check!). Alex Karpovsky from Lena Dunham’s Girls and director Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth) even appear in a few scenes. By now, your quirky, indie radar should be going off the charts. The film has many individual elements in it that I found enjoyable. But it lacks both quirk and comedy and fell significantly short of my expectations.
The film examines what happens when a young man is stuck in a rut financially, emotionally, and developmentally. The premise is not groundbreaking, and the meandering series of events that comprise the plot seems random and misguided. Jason Schwartzman’s wit and self-assuredness were not enough to save the film and his fans may feel let down.
Jason Schwartzman stars as Larry, a deeply sad young man who cannot hold a job and has no real contact with the world outside of his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) and one of her assisted living facility caretakers, Major Norwood (Adibempe). Larry does have an adorable French bulldog, Arrow, who is Schwartzman’s real life pet. Arrow sits there drowsily and snores and grunts while Larry imparts what little nuggets of wisdom he has about the world around him. Larry buys cheap prescription drugs from Major, who has a way with the ladies. But the most memorable scenes in the movie are between Larry and Arrow.
Larry loses his job at a restaurant after stealing booze and tips. This is likely not the first time he’s been down this road, and he steals a bottle of tequila on the way out. After stopping into a car repair shop for service, he talks his way into a new job with the shop’s owner, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta). After attempting to get money from his grandmother to stay afloat, Larry feels that this is the one job that he cares about as he begins to develop feelings for Lupe.
A series of random events and nonsensical behaviors don’t necessarily fit the mantra of “quirk” as it’s been tossed around so casually these days. In one scene, after receiving some heartbreaking news, Larry drags a dumpster to his door and starts throwing away of all of his personal effects and belongings, including a refrigerator. There is no real motivation for this other than an emotionally immature man not really knowing how to process grief. Quirk becomes a cop out when explaining this scene.
At one point Larry decides to leave his car behind by tossing the keys on the hood and walking away. While trying to hitch a ride, he has a ridiculous encounter with Alex Ross Perry. Byington really should have consulted with Perry much further before directing this scene as there should have been a much more effective way to use him in this cameo. Byington missed an opportunity to explore what could have been a biting exchange between the two.
Jason Schwartzman has definitely become indie film’s go-to for a smarmy, self-aggrandizing, yet morose character. His performances in Perry’s Listen Up Philip and several Wes Anderson films have been quite memorable due to his caustic screeds and condescending tones. As acerbic as he can be, the performances are fun to watch. In 7 Chinese Brothers he delivers a good performance, but Larry’s character is directionless. There really isn’t much a film for Schwartzman to sink his teeth into. It was a waste of an opportunity to really let him shine.
American indie films have had a very strong showing as of late but this film is an example of what happens when you rest on your laurels too much. We’ve come a long way since hamburger telephones (Juno) and misfit little girls in beauty pageants (Little Miss Sunshine). While the aforementioned films had delightful bursts of quirk surrounded by a tight script and stellar cast, 7 Chinese Brothers gets dragged down with dull stretches of Larry being unlikeable, and not in a likable way that Schwartzman usually displays. Juno is also faced with adversity not unlike Larry but the quirky humor that made you root for Juno is simply absent in this film. Juno was slightly snarky in tone but had genuinely humorous moments whereas 7 Chinese Brothers goes from one thing to the next without a hint of resolution and little to no humor.
The ante has been upped and this movie fell short. Absurdist humor is great when it is well executed but a great deal of this film seemed as if it was strung together from cuts off the editing room floor. The broader point about a directionless life could have been made with a much, much stronger film.
It might be easy to admire Larry’s personal life decision to carve out his own path but it’s so diffuse that it’s really hard to empathize with him. Perhaps sharper editing could have remedied this muddled film but clocking in at just 76 minutes, it may have been a blessing in disguise to go with this length.
This film is definitely a miss as we watch Schwartzman adrift in a sea of misdirection and random nonsense passed off as “quirk.” If you have 76 minutes to kill, choose wisely how you’d like to spend it.
The UW Cinematheque and the WUD Film Committee will co-present the screening of 7 Chinese Brothers at the Union South Marquee Theater, Thursday, September 17 at 7:00pm. The film is also available to rent on various streaming services. Check GoWatchIt for current rental options.