The old “I could watch so-and-so read a phone book” adage speaks to an ability to turn the banal into something unexpected and has been liberally applied to the works of anyone from Bill Murray to Daniel Day Lewis. In a similar but distinctly different vein, there’s something mundanely alluring about planting Jason Schwartzman in a room and allowing him to made snide riffs on each and every thing. The Rushmore-starrer possesses uncommon command over his ability to make you feel lesser, even if he’s day drunk, mostly unemployed and in the middle of getting punched in the face and Bob Byington capitalizes insanely on his ability to do such.
7 Chinese Brothers – the title is taken directly from the REM song of the same name – relinquishes a fully-charged, fully-snarky Schwartzman upon an Austin, Texas that is none too welcoming of his indifferent ways and has very little to offer him in terms of escapism. Like a stationary Kerouac, Schwartzman’s Larry finds solace at the bottom of a plastic handle of booze, spending his time off of some lousy job or another to loiter in the gas station parking lot or pester his grandma (Olympia Dukakis) for a financial leg up.
Larry can be described in part by his inherent opposition to dashing but periodically deceitful best friend/his grandmother’s caretaker Norwood (TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe.) Sure, they both pop the odd stool softener to judge its effects when paired with an ale but while Larry ducks and weaves any semblance of actual responsibility, Norwood approaches the bar. At the saloon, Norwood lands the hot girl leaving wingman Larry to pick up the none too interesting scraps. His affection for Larry’s grams comes from a place of genuine empathy rather than the performed attentiveness of a potential inheritee. Even though Larry tries to scare her off by letting slip that Norwood has a prosthetic leg (he doesn’t), Lupe (Eleanore Pienta) – Larry’s new boss at the oil change station and love interest – has eyes for his Norwood, that great bastion of lower-middle-class hard work.
The film plays fast and lose with Schwartzman’s lippy mannerisms and there’s not a scene that he enters and doesn’t exit victorious. From braying at passerby veterinarians (“You don’t throw hats at cars”) to waxing on the French language with real-life dog Arrow, he is a low-pitched firecracker, taking everyone and everything down a notch under his breathe. But that doesn’t mean that he is a hostile or even unlikeable figure. 7 Chinese Brothers‘ Schwartzman is a pithy, blue-collar beatnik in the wrong place and the wrong time and even though a persnickety little shit, he’s far from the overbearingly bitter and caustic Schwartzman of Alex Ross’ Listen Up Phillip.
Director and writer Bob Byington must have had the Schwartz in mind for the role as each and every lick of his script seems designed for the preternaturally salty comic performer. Equally, Schwartzman is tasked with handling the subtle dramatics of 7 Chinese Brothers, ensuring that the whole spiel isn’t tipped into a clinical cynic show. He does so effortlessly.
For its constant employment of intelligent, off-the-cuff comedy and gentle ability to massage in a genuine message of city-slacking and “real life” reproach, 7 Chinese Brothers is a product of snappy smarts and comic girth. Schwartzman performs at the top of his game for a role custom fit for him and any fan of the acerbic funny man should consider this required viewing.