Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party Movie Review
Make this 16.
Robert Brinkman, a long-time cinematographer, brings us a quirky documentary about a man whose name you may not know but whose face you certainly do. ("Ned! Ryerson!" Groundhog Day? Now you have a mental picture.)
The film is 98 percent consumed with Tobolowsky talking about himself, presumably at the urging of Brinkman, who opens the film by announcing that he finds his old friend so fascinating he just had to make this film.
And sure enough, it is. Tobolowsky offers a running commentary on his life, a story which includes everything we could possibly want to know about kidney stones, dolphins, doing drugs, "being cool," being held hostage at gunpoint in a grocery store, and, of course, the Hollywood scene. They're all surprisingly, shockingly, enthralling: His tale of being eaten by animatronic "piranhas" in Bird on a Wire alone is enough to really make me want to see the film again.
And yes, there's a birthday party. These monologues are delivered first while Tobolowsky is seen barbecuing sausages, then sitting in his living room surrounded by friends, then outside. His pals just stare and nod and laugh when they're supposed to. That's the one false move in the film: Its editing is strangely choppy, giving the impression that any time someone else in the room might have made a comment, Brinkman edited it out. It's just one Tobolowsky story jerkily jumping into another one. A handful of outtakes are offered between tales, mostly old friends and relatives offering a brief comment about how great Stephen is. Then it's right back to more Tobolowskyvision.
Imagine My Dinner with Andre without Wallace Shawn and you've got a pretty good idea what Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is like. But remember how important Shawn was as the foil to Andre Gregory's stories and you'll know how much more promise the film could have delivered on.
Give it a whirl. You won't see anything else like it this year.