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Jason Schwartzman And His Dog Star In Slacker Comedy '7 Chinese Brothers'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 4, 2015 5:50PM

Arrow and his owner Jason Schwartzman in "7 Chinese Brothers." (Screen Media Films)

It's been a good year for Jason Schwartzman. First there was his very funny performance as the scheming but sincere swinger in the comedy of sexual discomfort, The Overnight. Now, in 7 Chinese Brothers, Schwartzman's distinctive screen persona carries a rather slight comic character study to higher, more satisfying ground. Oh, his dog helps with the heavy lifting too.

Seemingly titled for no reason other than to use the excellent early R.E.M. song of the same name, 7 Chinese Brothers stars Schwartzman as Larry, a borderline alcoholic slacker too old to still be slacking. His occasional charm is undone by ceaseless misanthropy. His grandmother (former Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis in sharp form at 84) and her nursing home attendant (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio and Rachel Getting Married) are his only friends, and even they take a distinct backseat to his French bulldog, Arrow.

Larry is uninterested in holding down a job or finding a girlfriend until he falls for the cute manager (Eleanore Pienta) at the local Quick Lube oil change outlet. She triggers something close to enthusiasm in him and so he goes to work there, but it will take a few more hard knocks before Larry seriously reconsiders his life path.

The plot and subplots are clearly a second priority for writer-director Bob Byington, who devotes much of the movie's brief 76-minute running time to Larry just kind of being Larry—funny yet a little off-putting, sad but hardly tragic. He's the squeaky wheel in a bland, strip mall world, but he isn't squeaking about anything important.

Since he burst on the scene in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (playing the lead in his very first film), Schwartzman has specialized in characters who are acerbic and prickly, yet somehow also empathetic and endearing. In the wrong role, Schwartzman can be more than a little grating. But when he gets the right part, you can't imagine anyone else playing it. Larry is older, more cynical and far less ambitious, but you can still see bits of the goofball idealism of Rushmore's Max Fischer buried under the lethargy.

Schwartzman may have a limited dramatic palette, but he knows how to use those colors for different effect (Jesse Eisenberg, please take note). He's near the top of his game here as a melancholy clown you can't help but root for, even when he indulges his asshole side.

It's a good thing for Byington that his star is so perfect for the part, because it's doubtful his meandering script and uninspired direction would survive without him. I haven't seen Byington's earlier films, but 7 Chinese Brothers is yet another example of the dull style favored by so many recent indie filmmakers of the micro-budget/post-mumblecore/no-tripod school. I'm a broken record with this gripe, but you don't need much money to creatively frame a shot or break away from the overuse of handheld camerawork or medium shots and close-ups.

Byington has said this is a 14-year-old script that went through significant rewrites, but it was originally written in six days. It still comes across as a movie written on the fly. A subplot involving Larry keying the car of a co-worker has three different resolutions when just one would have been fine.

And then there is a dead-end scene involving filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (who directed Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip) as a veterinarian who almost gets into a fight with Larry. Even in such a brief movie, this scene seems extraneous and Perry's flat acting doesn't help. (In full disclosure, I may still be resentful of suffering through Perry's The Color Wheel, an inexplicably well-reviewed piece of cinematic torture, which Byington co-produced.)

Enough about what's wrong with 7 Chinese Brothers. What the movie gets right is providing a muted, oppressively dull world for Schwartzman to rub against. The supporting players are largely enjoyable too, especially Dukakis and Stephen Root in a brief, wonderfully awkward role as the lawyer in charge of Dukakis' will. His presence leads to the movie's best scene—a hilarious eulogy sequence.

The soundtrack is pretty damn awesome as well, with standout cuts from Guided by Voices, The Cars and Big Star, as well as a subtle but effective score from Vampire Weekend's Chris Baio.

And last but certainly not least, there is Arrow, Schwartzman's real-life pet. Simply put, the dog is a star. In his first scene, he literally seems to be rolling his eyes at Larry's remarks—as if he's heard them 1,000 times before. His winningly sleepy, "just let me be" expression may be simply be a lazy, 11-year-old canine being himself...but isn't that what all the great movie stars do?

7 Chinese Brothers. Written and directed by Bob Byington. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Olympia Dukakis, Tunde Adebimpe, Eleanore Pienta, Stephen Root and Arrow. 76 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, Sept. 4 at Facets Cinémathèque.