Melbourne International Film Festival Review: 7 Chinese Brothers (USA, 2015)

Larry (Jason Schwartzman) is on the road to nowhere in notoriously chillaxed Austin. He’s just lost his job for a string of misdemeanours, and his only friends appear to be his very beloved French Bulldog Arrow (Schwatrzman’s pet in real life), a prescription medication dealer and aged carer, Norwood, and his grandmother (Olimpia Dukakis), a firm but thankless believer in tough love.

Premiering at SXSW this year, 7 Chinese Brothers picked up mixed reviews. It relies heavily on the quirky humour of Schwartzman, whose particular brand of unflappable greasiness is perfectly suited to the film’s pace as it moves through a series of go-nowhere encounters that build into an overarching existential crisis.

It’s blueprint many will recognise from 90s slacker films (think: Mallrats, Clerks and, of course, Richard Linklater’s Slacker) that trade heavily on the audience’s investment in the underachiever’s character arc; starting out as the kind of loser we merely sympathise with, to become the kind of loser we identify with. In the case of Larry, Schwartzman’s a pleasure to watch, especially for his panache with deadpan, and his devotees will get plenty from this performance.

But Larry’s loveable loser shtick grows tiresome when it’s clear that the arc is going nowhere. Sure, he makes the most of a dead end job vacuuming cars by being his workplace clown, and to his credit he is even-keel enough that he doesn’t seem to mind that things never go his way. But eventually even the comedy feels like a series of missed opportunities and narrative cul de sacs – in one glimmer of hope that it might be driving at something, Larry has an almost aggressive, but actually quite polite altercation with a recently graduated vet and there is a moment of recognition that they might have something in common (Arrow) and that something might happen (it doesn’t).

Much of the comedy feels like off-the-cuff material from Schwartzman, the spontaneity of which would have worked in the film’s favour if it didn’t also feel like he was simply working the volume angle, throwing plenty of material at a wall and hoping at least some of it will stick; very little of it does and eventually we stop caring anyway. And a seemingly endless supply of non-sequiturs give the impression that someone couldn’t be bothered developing the ideas, or at least editing them out in post production (a scene in which Larry considers that dogs have knees is a particularly banal thought bubble).

Sure, that’s the domain of the slacker – to ruminate, in their complete and utter absence, on the pursuits of the ambitious closely enough to make them appear ridiculous, usually while drunk or stoned – and approaching the film in this spirit will definitely help some. And you could perhaps even argue that beneath all that disinterested nihilism, Larry’s a sensitive soul who doesn’t need ambition to be happy. Larry has a lot of trouble relating meaningfully with people; that’s fine. But ultimately, the character is unable to connect with the audience, and what’s meant to be simpatico just ends up being kind of annoying. There’s a difference between a character who, over the course of their arc, makes a case for wanting less for themselves than we want for them – that’s challenging to an audience. But a character whose inner life is not even discernable to his audience? That’s not slacker. That’s just lazy.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

You can find out more about this film here: http://miff.com.au/program/film/7-chinese-brother

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