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7 Chinese Brothers examines the human connection



7 Chinese Brothers, the latest from writer-director Bob Byington (Somebody Up There Likes Me) is nothing you would expect from a film with that name.

In fact, there aren’t any brothers in it at all.

At a Q&A after the film’s world premiere at South by Southwest in March, Byington said the best description of the story is R.E.M.’s eponymous 1984 song. The tune is based on a Chinese story about five brothers with supernatural powers that allow them to help each other out of sticky situations.

The film opens with Larry (Jason Schwartzman, The Grand Budapest Hotel) talking to his lazy, snoring French bulldog Arrow (Schwartzman’s dog in real life).

Within minutes, it is clear that Larry is an unmotivated alcoholic in his late 20s or early 30s and is stuck in a pointless, fruitless routine. He’s also completely unwilling to change.

By some miracle, he manages to obtain (and keep) a dead-end job at Quick Lube and reasonably take care of Arrow. The rest of his time is spent buying beer and liquor from the same convenience store clerk; obtaining pills from one of his grandmother’s nurses (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe), who also is his drinking buddy; avoiding meaningful adult interaction; passing out near his dog, his one true friend; and waking up the next day to do it again. After all, Larry has “7,000 years to sleep away the pain,” so why should he put any effort into anything real and lasting?

Larry survives everything that happens to him (most of it due to his actions/inaction) and comes out relatively unscathed. He appears upbeat and unaffected by the tragedy he calls life and sabotages any chance that anyone might take him seriously, but he isn’t fooling anyone, much less himself. He is painfully desperate for attention and a real, human connection.

He’s knocked out of his modern-adult reverie by a life-changing event, but he doesn’t ease into the change: He throws everything away, leaving a nearly clean slate on which to move ahead. This smack in the face forces him to succeed in spite of himself.

As in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Byington has assembled an impressive cast. Veteran actress Olympia Dukakis gives a refreshing performance as Larry’s smart-mouthed, tough-love grandmother, his only remaining relative. Eleanor Pienta (See You Next Tuesday) is full of girl-next-door charm as Larry’s boss and love interest. Adebimpe manages to remain both simple and aloof as Larry’s drug dealer and Grandma’s caretaker, and character actor Stephen Root leaves viewers feeling as though there’s more to his family connection than just being Grandma’s lawyer. While these secondary performances are interesting, Schwartzman outshines them. We never learn much about their characters or their lives, but to be fair, neither does Larry.

7 Chinese Brothers succeeds in spite of its quiet simplicity and initial flatness — it sinks in and releases its lessons slowly, hours after the credits roll. It’s a picture of modern existence that remains unfiltered by the rose-colored glasses of Hollywood fiction.

Byington wants us to realize that maybe everything we seek can be ours as long as we accept ourselves and are willing to clean up and start over, determined to be slightly better people.

Print headline: Modern Larry, 7 Chinese Brothers highlights our basic needs for attention and human connection.

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