The Folk Hero We Deserve
Seeing double of Jason Schwartzman
There's a Chinese folk tale following a cadre of exceptional, identical male siblings – sometimes there are five of them, sometimes seven – who fight for justice and overcome obstacles through ingenuity and teamwork. Each of the brothers has a superpower of sorts, from extraordinary strength to being impervious to heat to crying tears so large they can drown a village. When one brother enrages the Emperor, they all band together to outwit him, finding strength in their numbers rather than in any one brother alone.
As Larry, though, in Bob Byington's 7 Chinese Brothers, Jason Schwartzman is terribly alone, with his dog, Arrow, as his sole confidant. His relationship with his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) is polite and indifferent, while his friendship with Major (TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) feels transactional at best. It's a deliciously ambiguous movie. How did Larry get to this point of stasis? Where is he trying to go? What's his story, and how in the hell can he afford that amazing Hyde Park apartment on his Buca di Beppo income? It's possible even Larry himself wouldn't be able to provide an accurate explanation.
A film about a man learning to tell the truth, or at least describe it, 7 Chinese Brothers follows Larry around Central Austin as he spins his wheels, moving through life in a succession of interchangeable work shirts distinguished only by the logos of the various soulless corporate outfits for which he toils. "It felt like he was always wearing something that could get extremely dirty, wasn't precious, very utilitarian," says Schwartzman. "The shoes that he wears are very big and heavy. Larry moves slowly. When I tried on those shoes for the first time I could barely break into a fast walk. I don't walk a lot with my hands in my pockets, but with that outfit and those shoes, all of a sudden I was walking around with my hands in my pockets." The nondescript clothing, along with Larry's come-and-go fake Texas accent and jokes-as-defense-mechanism ethos suggests that in the absence of any meaningful support system, Larry is adrift, unmoored from any sense of himself or direction or perhaps even reality.
Because Larry is something of a cipher, the narrative relies heavily on Schwartzman's 11-year-old French bulldog, Arrow, effectively playing himself as a very sleepy, low energy pet, one that serves to humanize his master. "He's ideal for shooting because he doesn't move a lot," says Schwartzman, who hung around Austin with Arrow in the weeks leading up to last year's shoot. "He's not a trained dog actor, and a lot of times we would build a scene around Arrow. We'd be sitting in a room rehearsing and Arrow would walk in and lie down on the bed and we'd figure out how we could work around him. Literally it was blocking. He was blocking us from doing the scene as written." (At one point, Schwartzman puts Arrow on the phone, filling the airwaves with wet snorts and snuffles. "Arrow!" he exclaims. "You just did your first interview!") Schwartzman and Arrow's comfort with each other serves to ground Larry, make him identifiable while everyone else around him is looking at him askance.
Skepticism about a Schwartzman character and his intentions will be a theme at SXSW this year. The actor will also promote a second indie film, Patrick Brice's Sundance breakout The Overnight, a weird little sex comedy that finds Schwartzman filling the slightly tonier shoes of Kurt, an outgoing L.A. denizen who befriends Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) at a neighborhood park. Where Larry is an aimless day drinker with bad posture and a shitty car, Kurt is a gregarious, confident, vaguely insincere hipster with an enormous house and a hot wife. For Schwartzman, though, there's not much distance between Larry and Kurt. "This character, he's nervous too. He's loud and bombastic and extroverted, but he's panicking a little."
Both men are at sea; one of them has nicer clothes. But Schwartzman, who is gradually proving himself to be king of inscrutable-yet-lovable white guys on film, has clearly found his sweet spot, no identical super-powered brothers needed.