Tobolowsky was nominated by Buzz Magazine as being one of the 100 coolest people in L.A., a nod you might not expect a middle-aged, balding, rather ordinary looking guy to get. Some people labor to be cool, spending hours primping in front of mirrors, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars on the right clothes and the right car, taking pains to be seen in the right places with the right people...but to Tobolowsky, it's effortless. He doesn't name drop. There's no pretension. He's just a bright, talented, down to earth guy who's lived an endlessly fascinating life and is charismatic and engaging enough to know how to tell people about it.
The aptly-titled Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party spends a day with the veteran character actor as he prepares for a small get-together with friends and family, although it's not about the party so much as giving Tobolowsky a stage to tell his stories. After the introductory voiceover, and aside from a handful of one or two sentence comments from a couple of other folks at the party noting how they first met Stephen, the movie is just one story after another for an hour and a half. There are very, very few people -- actors or otherwise -- who could carry a movie by their lonesome and without a script to boot. Not only does Tobolowsky pull it off, he pulls it off so well that there's literally another movie's worth of material in the deleted scenes on this DVD.
The tricky thing about reviewing a movie like this is that I don't want to give away the best parts of Tobolowsky's stories, but it's tough to describe how hysterical, how enthralling, or, at times, how poignant they are with vague descriptions. You'll have to take it on faith, I guess, but to tease at a few, this is a man who's been seated next to buckled crustaceans on an airline flight. He invited an oversentimental gunman who held him hostage in a Piggly Wiggly for a chicken and mango dinner. He's been booted from restaurants on different continents to make way for the most powerful man in the world. He's been flogged by Thai monks. He tried (and failed) to sing lead in his rock band after puffing on a brick of ammonia-tainted pot. One very special Christmas Eve was spent zonked out on LSD, curled around a toilet with a wet towel on his head and later engaged in a deep conversation with the family dog. He talks about his elation in being bumped up the Action Movie Villain Hierarchy and getting a more elaborate death, only to find himself saddled with a 21 hour work day, submersed in a freezing water tank with vegetarian piranha and some flaky fake-flesh-ripping electronics.
Every story is gold; there's not a weak moment in the bunch, and even with as exceptionally difficult an art to master as storytelling is, Tobolowsky is so skilled at it that this hour and a half movie feels like maybe a third of that. Funnier than most comedies and with emotion more genuine than most dramas, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party stands out as easily one of my favorite movies I've seen this year and is well-worth the effort to seek out.
Video: Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party was shot on high-definition video, and the resulting anamorphic widescreen image on this DVD is as clean and sharp as that suggests. The project was spearheaded by Robert Brinkmann, a man with a couple decades of experience in Hollywood as a cinematographer, and he has a strong enough visual eye to keep his film from looking like an overpriced home movie without resorting to any distracting gimmickry. A simple but nice looking movie on an equally nice looking DVD.
Audio: Not the most demanding Dolby Digital stereo surround track, the audio is understandably anchored front and center around Tobolowsky's storytelling, although
Supplements: Just a full-frame trailer and some deleted scenes. That might not sound like much until you notice that the deleted scenes run just the slightest bit longer than the entire length of the movie; it's like getting Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party II: The Spawning for free!
There are fourteen additional stories in total, and as is the case with the movie itself, they can be viewed individually or consecutively. I can only imagine that the deletions had to made purely to bring the final cut down to the industry standard hour and a half. There's not quite the same level of consistency in these additional stories, but the best of them are easily as good as anything that made it into the movie. The highlights...? In agony on a shithole Bahaman island, mulling over who would be the best candidate to pee on his chest. Waking up abandoned in a trailer among the world's most deadliest scorpions in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Pondering how a Thai sex show performer first figured out that she could open a beer bottle with her ::inoffensive yet suggestive whistling sound::. Dreading sloppy twenty-seconds from a mouth-breathing hooker. Horrifying Hispanic schoolchildren with misdelivered Spanish dialogue. Diving into first base with a bear of a cowboy on Lover's Lane to cover up a felony drug deal.
I would've given the DVD a cartoonishly overenthusiastic review based on the movie alone, but a feature-length assortment of other stories makes it...I dunno, whatever's a couple of notches above "cartoonishly overenthusiastic". The additional scenes are all in anamorphic widescreen, by the way.
Conclusion: Storytelling consists of two distinct elements: "story" and...stop me if I'm going too fast..."telling". Neither really amounts to much without the other, but character actor Stephen Tobolowsky has an unrelenting grasp on both. Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is a unique and indescribably entertaining movie, and the slew of additional stories on the DVD make it even more appealing. Highly Recommended.
Random Notes: This is kind of a tough movie to do justice with a few paragraphs of plain text, but the movie's official site has a couple of trailers and an 11 minute mp3 of one of its deleted scenes that'll probably do a better job than I am.