A comedy too listless to bother crafting jokes or comic incidents, a character study centered on a sweet-natured prick it’s hard to believe could actually exist tumbleweeding into a job at a lube shop, 7 Chinese Brothers is a go-nowhere shrug of a movie, the kind of indie that might send you screaming for the multiplex. Jason Schwartzman stars — if that verb can be applied to a picture philosophically opposed to the things that stars do, like shining or standing out or being memorable. He’s the best thing about the movie, of course, but he’s also pretty much the only thing about the movie. In the first scenes, which prickle appealingly with his uneasy charisma, his schlubby drunk Larry gets fired from Buca di Beppo for stealing someone else’s tips. He also nicks tequila from the bar, a crime it’s easier to get behind. On his way out, he keys the car of an ex-co-worker, just the kind of aggressive rebellion indie-comedy heroes are always up to in their movies’ first act — and then grow past by the end of act three. 7 Chinese Brothers at least has the courage of its aimlessness: By the end, Larry has suffered, some, and gotten punched, but he hasn’t come of age. He’s still the same hostile, unambitious, entirely opaque fellow he was in the first ten minutes.
We are supposed to like him, if not root for him. Schwartzman gets lots of petting time with Arrow, his snorting bulldog. (He’s the actor’s real-life companion.) Writer-director Bob Byington has surrounded Schwartzman with excellent scene partners, but he hasn’t given them much in the way of scenes. Olympia Dukakis is a kick, at first, as Larry’s grandmother, especially as she calls Larry out on how there’s clearly booze in the Styrofoam cup he’s sucking from. Stephen Root shows up, as a lawyer, and briefly fills the frame with life recognizable as human. Tunde Adebimpe, of TV on the Radio, is a likable presence as Major, an attendant at that grandmother’s nursing home. Each time he edged into the shot, said a few lines, and then yielded the movie back to Schwartzman, I wished 7 Chinese Brothers was about his character, especially considering a surprise windfall that comes to him later in the film. There’s things happening in his life.
Instead, Byington’s movie schleps after Larry, who takes a job at Quick Lube. His co-workers bully him, and he develops a crush on his boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta). These two hang out, once, with Major, and Schwartzman does intentionally terrible karaoke — the earnest kind everyone quietly stops watching after a couple moments and then never mentions again. That’s kind of what I wanted to do with the movie.
Schwartzman has his moments, of course. He’s scraped away his satiric impulse and instead plays lonely, scrappy, excitable, and frustrated. His antic-ness is gone, and his occasional smarty-pantsness, and that over-the-top self-confidence that makes him my number-one choice to one day play Tom Cruise in a Walk Hard-style biopic sendup. This time, there’s nothing a Schwartzman character thinks he’s the best at. Larry simmers with anger at how the world ignores him, how nobody laughs at the joke-like non sequiturs he tosses out, at the way he can’t even bring himself to dream of saying the right thing to Lupe. Like the audience, neither Larry nor Lupe nor the movie can even imagine these two getting together. So the characters don’t — but they don’t do much of anything else, either.
You may be wondering about the title. It’s simply the name of the elliptical old R.E.M. song that plays over the credits. That song is a snaking, bouncing, timeless marvel, the work of artists marshaling all their powers and building toward something. The movie is about standing around and hoping maybe something happens.
7 Chinese Brothers
Written and directed by Bob Byington
Screen Media Films
Opens August 28, IFC Center
Available on demand