After his first big role in Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman puttered along as a character actor for a good long while, working his go-to comic move of sad-sack self-absorption into larger ensemble pieces. Lately he’s been taking lead roles more often, and it’s been a surprisingly smooth transition. On TV in Bored To Death and in movies like last year’s terrific Listen Up Philip, Schwartzman’s figured out how to do enough with his prickliness to hold the center of a story. He’s becoming the indie film version of a classic screen comedian—the kind with one basic move, which he does so well that fans keep coming back.
Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers is no Listen Up Philip, but it’s an amiable enough slacker comedy, boosted by its star. Schwartzman plays Larry, a habitual liar and crappy employee, who stumbles through life in a self-induced stupor, drinking hard liquor out of a 44-ounce styrofoam cup while relying on his nurse friend Major (Tunde Adebimpe) to supply him with the pills he swipes from an old folks’ home. When Larry runs low on cash, he usually calls on his grandma (Olympia Dukakis), but with her health failing, he feels obliged to make more of an effort at his latest minimum-wage gig, vacuuming out cars at a Quick Lube. It doesn’t hurt that his new boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta) is both attractive and, as a single mom, more understanding than most when it comes to boys who won’t grow up.
7 Chinese Brothers itself could stand to be a little less understanding. Or at the least, Byington could’ve made more of an effort to differentiate his movie from the dozens of other indies about irresponsible arrested adolescents that come out each year, most of which are way too sympathetic to their do-nothing heroes. Spend enough time on the film festival circuit and it starts to look like the biggest problem affecting the world today—or the “aspiring artist” subset of the world, anyway—is a generalized ennui and lack of direction, easily cured by meeting the right person or suffering a serious personal crisis.
Byington’s big vision for 7 Chinese Brothers is to set it in an Austin, Texas where nearly everyone’s just as childish as Larry. This move imagines a community populated by small-minded clock-watchers: where mechanics bully their co-workers into giving them any change they find in a customer’s car, where line-cooks slop food around with their bare hands, and where even the licensed professionals at an assisted-living facility are petty and pissy. It’s an amusingly cockeyed perspective on the modern world, though the gag does fade a bit over the course of 7 Chinese Brothers’ 75 minutes.
That’s where Schwartzman comes in handy. Without saying a word—just by looking around with his particular mix of desperation and disdain—he fills out a fairly vague character, capturing his self-destructiveness, his personal pain, and even the notion that he could be a decent guy if he was willing to work at it. There’s absolutely nothing novel about a “loser gets it together” arc, and especially not in this particular genre of low-budget comedies. But for those who just want to see Schwartzman be Schwartzman for an hour or so, 7 Chinese Brothers delivers the goods.