‘7 Chinese Brothers’
Director:
Bob Byington
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Olympia Dukakis
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

In “Rushmore” Jason Schwartzman played a loner who gradually embraces a community of friends he never thought he’d have. The same thing happens in “7 Chinese Brothers,” but the adventures are more low-key, ambling, almost (but not quite) generic indie. And Schwartzman’s Larry is no Max Fischer. He’s a grouchy malcontent content to while away his days speaking only to his adorable pug. His ambition is no greater than spiking his convenience store soda on the job at Buca Di Beppo and further medicating himself with pills he scores off of a nurse (Tunde Adebimpe) while visiting his grandma (Olympia Dukakis) at her nursing home.

Larry’s semi-awakening is paint-by-numbers, complete with a third act tragedy that threatens to undo all of our antisocial hero’s progress, and a non-sequitur title lifted from a classic song (in this case by R.E.M.). But there is a personality poking out above the cliches. It’s the nicest film yet made by Bob Byington, a microbudget staple who specializes in arch fits of deadpan. His previous film, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” was so stylized (superficially indebted to Wes Anderson, as it were) it often seemed inhuman. “7 Chinese Brothers,” by contrast, is very human. The camera is off the tripod and tends to mess around with the actors, who themselves are directed to be very nearly real. The story charts Larry, fired from his job (in part for boozing through it, though that wasn’t his worst offense), taking up equally go-nowhere work at a body shop. Instead of closing himself off, he finds himself making friends, including with a young single mom (a casually revelatory Eleanore Pienta) who takes a cautious liking to her new employee.

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Byington plays a little too nice. He sands down his edges so much that not only does his latest seem anonymous it too easily lets characters off the hook. It doesn’t always play this way. “Brothers” offers an offbeat vision of Austin not as a hotbed of bohemia but as just another cookie cutter home to uninspiring jobs and low ambition, marked by a funny hostility that appears widespread. Larry is merely fitting into a microcosm where everyone, from chain restaurant bosses to nurses to a guy ostensibly celebrating his newly acquired veterinarian degree (played by Schwartzman’s “Listen Up Philip” director Alex Ross Perry), are prickly and in-your-face, ready to pounce at the tiniest offense. Byington doesn’t overplay this, but he also doesn’t go far enough with it, content to let things chill out into the kind of dramedy that ends with shots of its reformed protagonist staring peacefully into space.

It is a pleasant vibe, though, and with a certain sense of anxiety to keep things from becoming narcotic. Dukakis casually steals her few scenes as a grandmother on her way out but with still enough kick in her. There’s an entire subplot about keying cars. And Schwartzman has turned into a pro at playing disdain mixed with despair, now able to do a lot with very little. This is ultimately not a Bob Byington film so much as it is The Jason Schwartzman Show — a minor entry on his rap sheet but one not worth skipping over.

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