Jason Schwartzman is on fire. His comic chops have been evident since his earliest (and perhaps still most well-known) role as Max Fisher in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, but more recently we have seen him grow into his own unique flavor of leading man (or man-child, as the case may be). Last year there was his turn as the uncomfortably grumpy Philip Lewis Friedman in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. This year, at SXSW, we have the premiere of Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers, a film that showcases the lighter side of Schwartzman’s on-screen schmuckery. He plays Larry, a fuck-up to be sure, but a fuck-up you can cheer for.
At the film’s outset, Larry gets fired for stealing liquor from a family-style Italian chain. After a quick visit to his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) and her assisted-living attendant, Major (Tunde Adebimpe), who also happens to be Larry’s best friend/drug dealer, he applies for another job at an auto shop. To our and his shock, Larry is hired on the spot, and so begins his adventures at Quick Lube. He is interested in his boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta), and is bullied by his supervisor to steal change from cars.
The only being on Earth who Larry is able to have an honest conversation with is Arrow, his french bulldog (played by Schwartzman’s own dog of the same name). Through Larry’s interactions with Arrow, we learn that the false bravado, the barbed punchlines that end every other sentence, and the general contentedness with being a loser, are all a front. If you cut Larry, he sure as shit bleeds.
One of the film’s more successful scenes occurs later on. Coming to the end of his rope, Larry wanders along the streets of Austin, half-assedly hitching rides. In a desperate rage, he throws a hat directly into the side of a slow moving vehicle. The car stops and its driver, played by Alex Ross Perry (aptly credited as “Hats at Cars”) steps out to confront him. “Look at yourself,” he says. Perry’s character, a recently certified veterinarian out celebrating with friends, is who Larry could have been, and still could be, if he gets his act together. (The point is punctuated by the fact that Perry and Scwartzman look strikingly similar.) One wonders whether Larry actually ever takes a moment for introspection, to look at himself.
Larry’s attempts to pull himself together are thwarted at every pass. He gives up his worldly possessions, gives up the only girl he’s interested in, nearly loses his best friend and finally opens himself up to the long-coming consequences for his being a dick. And yet it’s still just him and Arrow, trying to make it.
7 Chinese Brothers (whose title I’ve come up short trying to decipher, but I’ll just leave this and this here for reference) is a funny and smart coming of tale about a class clown man-child with the uncanny ability to squander every piece of good fortune that comes his way. The film also features a number of notable walk-on roles including the aforementioned Perry, Alex Karpovsky, Stephen Root and Ben Kweller. Director Bob Byington has woven a solid yarn, and it’s only too satisfying to see Schwartzman become such a hapless schmuck. He brings the character to life. You almost want him to make it.