The Sliding Scale of Evolution
I had a low opinion of filmmaker Bob Byington after watching 2006’s Registered Sex Offender and 2012’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. Marked by a low-budget aesthetic and centering on aimless, self-centered, and unlikable hipster-types, both films left me with the mistaken impression that the writer/director was either expressing a self I didn’t care to know or pandering to an audience I didn’t want to be in. But there’s a third option that smacked me right in the face while watching his latest, 7 Chinese Brothers, a missing link in my unofficial study of Byington’s narrative evolutionary scale:
This guy feels so deeply that his movies are a challenge for the audience, a dare to penetrate his suffering characters’ walls of self-hatred and discover the parts of ourselves that reflect back from their jagged, rusty edges. Byington’s four most recent films are variations on a set of traits, values, and ideas that smack of Choose Your Own Adventure-style thought experiments played out to sometimes unwatchable degrees. RSO presented us with an ambiguously skeevy protagonist; Somebody Up There Likes Me asked us to root for (or at least tolerate) a smug and deliberately vile antihero; Harmony and Me falls somewhere in between a farce and an oddly affecting drama. 7 Chinese Brothers is Byington's most realistic (but no less challenging) configuration of these his key ingredients.*
Jason Schwartzman plays Larry, a disgruntled Buca di Beppo employee. He gets canned for stealing liquor, but quickly weasels his way into a "Courtesy Tech" job at the local Quick-Lube. He develops an instant crush on his boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta), and an instant fear of his supervisor, Jimmy (Jimmy Gonzales), who shakes him down for the change he vacuums up from customers' cars. Outside of work, Larry's hobbies include drinking, hanging out with his dog, Arrow, and visiting his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in a retirement community. He plays wing-man to one of the nurses, Norwood (Tunde Adebimpe), and also scores medication from him to chase the booze.
7 Chinese Brothers is the closest Byington comes to creating a recognizable adult world for his developmentally arrested protagonist to navigate. The film derives its comedy by breaking the impenetrable orbit of its snarky, entitled lead with characters who've got too many real problems to tolerate those of a man-child. It's a minor miracle that Lupe hires the charming but slightly-too-quirky Larry, but Byington drops hints of her desperation as an employer. Once in the door, Larry is given room to be himself, but not enough to Jim Carrey his way through the work day. More importantly, Lupe's intrigue with her new hire doesn't blind her to the fact that she's got a shop to run, a crazy ex to contend with, and a kid at home.
I won't elaborate much further on what makes this film work better than Byington's other efforts (with the exception of Harmony and Me, which I give a slight advantage to, entertainment-wise, thanks to one great song and one great moment). Suffice it to say, this is an oddly touching movie about growing up when one is well-past the age of society's ability to excuse juvenile behavior. Byington doesn't moralize, per se, but one can see (if one chooses to see) a Hand of God in the film that rewards struggle and punishes aimlessness. That's not to say a lack of direction is some kind of cosmic crime, but this time out, our antihero can't get away with antagonizing the ambitious and the upwardly mobile.
In addition to this shift in the writing (at least my perception of it), 7 Chinese Brothers succeeds thanks to some superb casting. Schwartzman is at once an extension of the typical Byington lead and a giant stride forward. The actor has built a strong career playing aloof know-it-alls, but here he gives a peek behind a frayed, tequila-stained curtain. We get the feeling that Larry's insistence on acting like an annoying sitcom neighbor stems from either a monumental loss early on, or a simple inability to understand why anyone has to grow up, move on, and die. Schwartzman is instrumental in selling the battle for balance within the character as Byington conceived him.
The other principal actors really put the "support" in "supporting roles". Aside from a pair of broadly drawn and perhaps superfluously recurring former Buca di Beppo managers, the film is full of natural performances from really interesting actors. Byington and company have every opportunity to invoke cliché in scenes involving bad double dates, visits to the ailing grandmother, and professions of love. They don't take the easy way out, choosing instead to let the laughs and the chills build naturally from somewhat relatable places. I would gladly watch spin-off movies about Norwood, Lupe, or even Grandma's attorney (Stephen Root); the actors make us believe that their characters' lives are rich enough to inspire compelling dramas, comedies, or casual, day-in-the-life mockumentaries.
Now that I've learned just what Byington can do, I would choose any of those adventures.
*I’ll elaborate on Harmony and Me next week.