Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party is a difficult movie to review because it really isn’t a conventional film in any sense. It’s obviously not a fiction film, but it isn’t really a documentary either. In fact, the movie consists entirely of Stephen Tobolowsky telling stories to the camera as he sets up his birthday party, the guests arrive, and the celebration begins. While this may sound a bit…unusual, and perhaps less appealing than a typical documentary or fiction film, don’t be fooled: Tobolowsky is a master storyteller, and you will find yourself hanging on his every word.
But just who is Stephen Tobolowsky? Odds are, like the people in the trailer for this movie, you don’t know him by name. But I guarantee you’ve seen him before, because he’s acted in over 200 movies and TV shows! Still don’t think you’d recognize him? Take a look at this sequence from Memento – the very movie that put Christopher Nolan on the map!
And that’s not the only well-known movie Tobolowsky’s been involved with! He’s been in Thelma & Louise, Basic Instinct, Sneakers, The Sasquatch Gang (an underrated favourite of mine), Wild Hogs, The Insider, Groundhog Day and Buried. Not to mention his TV credits, including roles on The Drew Carey Show, That 70’s Show, Hercules, The Lone Gunmen, CSI (Las Vegas AND Miami), Heroes, Deadwood, Californication, and even Glee. He’s one of the hardest working character actors in Hollywood, and he’s great in every role he plays. He’s also been in show business for quite some time, and of course, he’s accumulated a wealth of terrific stories.
This story is just one of many, many terrific tales that Tobolowsky weaves over the ninety minutes of the movie. He tells us, among other things, about working in the movie industry, about how he was held up at gunpoint in a supermarket, and even about the Christmas party he was at where one of his friends spiked everyones’ coffee with LSD. Every story is told in such a way that it becomes genuinely gripping. There’s laughter, there’s tension, and it all feels very intimate because of the setting and small group of people present. In fact, it feels like you, too, are attending Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.
Aside from the stories, there really isn’t much to the film. You get a few talking head interviews with Stephen’s wife, his friends, and, oddly, Mena Suvari. The movie was also obviously shot using professional equipment by someone with a working knowledge of cinematography, because the colours are crisp and balanced and the whole thing is excellently filmed.
This is one of those rare movies that isn’t out to give you a huge spectacle of entertainment. It’s a personal film, designed to introduce you to an actor who you’ve definitely seen, but probably never paid attention to, and give you insight into his amazing life. So many incredible things have happened to Stephen Tobolowsky, and he talks about them with such passion and emotion. If you’re not familiar with his work, then I highly, highly recommend you look into this film. It’s available on iTunes, according to the film’s official site!
And if you, like me, can’t be sated by just 90 minutes of Tobolowsky’s stories, then you should look into The Tobolowsky Files – a podcast of stories about life, love and the entertainment industry which Tobolowsky runs with the managing editor of /Film David Chen. The podcast episodes are nothing short of terrific, and you really should check them out. In fact, many of the stories told in Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party reappear in The Tobolowsky Files in much more polished form. Click here to visit the official site of the Tobolowsky Files!
4 out of 5