Judge Brendan Babish's birthday parties are much like Stephen Tobolowsky's, except there's a lot more alcohol and not so many guests.
If you celebrate only one birthday this year, make sure it's Stephen Tobolowski's
Watching Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday I was reminded of the lost art of storytelling. Thousands of years ago, before movies, radio or the theater, there were storytellers. After a hard day of work, all the members of the tribe would gather around the campfire and listen to a wise elder recount tales of yonder. Based on his performance here, I'm certain Stephen Tobolowsky would have been a superstar in that time period, instead of merely settling for "That guy!" status in this epoch.
You may not recognize the name Stephen Tobolowsky, but I'm pretty sure you know the face. When they finally get around to opening the "That Guy!" Hall of Fame, Tobolowsky will surely be among the introductory class of inductees. Tobolowsky is a character actor who's appeared in over 150 movies and television shows, usually cast as the geeky, nebbish type. He is perhaps best known for playing Ned Ryerson, the dweeby former classmate of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Like another notable character actor, Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia), Tobolowsky uses a strong natural personality to bust out of his nondescript screen persona. While eking out a living playing mostly uptight, academic types, Gray achieved prominence for performing monologues with material culled from his professional and personal life. While Gray's stories were often intense and tinged with paranoia, the avuncular Tobolowsky is warm and genial and often tells stories that are either humorously self-deprecating or morally didactic. In accordance with their differing personalities, Gray used a dark stage as the setting for his monologues, while Tobolowsky provides his birthday party as a backdrop to tell some good stories.
The movie's first half hour shows Stephen on the afternoon of his birthday, making preparation for that evening's party. He boils some sausages in a vat of beer, fires up the grill and discusses some of his travails as a young actor. Almost immediately we recognize that Tobolowsky is not a storyteller to be trifled with. His tale of applying to become Texas's first Ronald McDonald is clearly fertile ground for comedy, but Tobolowsky's adds so many elegant touches, such as his brief mime imitation, that his stories are nearly elevated into art.
Later, soon after the sun goes down, guests arrive. Most seem to be fellow thespians, and a few, such as Mena Suvari (American Beauty) and Amy Adams (Junebug) are recognizable. Once all the guests find seats and have a drink in their hand Steven pulls up a chair and story time begins again. With a captive audience Tobolowsky's stories become slightly more serious (one involves a gun being pointed at his head, another his encounter with racism in the deep South). Still, like all great entertainers, he's tapped into his crowd and knows when to inset a laugh line and defuse the tension.
From a filmmaking perspective, one of the problems with involving guests in the production is that, after spending so much time with Tobolowsky as the focal point, the extra bodies provide a distraction. I was especially bothered with the living room venue, because after nearly every joke I looked to his audience to see who was laughing. There is one particular guest, who has been forced to sit on the floor due to a lack of seating, who seems singularly not amused by Tobolowsky. I found myself studying her intently, wondering whether she was truly ill at ease, or merely stoic.
Still, this is true nit picking of a film that was quite simply a joy to watch. Tobolowsky proves to be a wise, witty and nostalgic individual, and those are exactly the sort of people you want to have over for your dinner party. As an added bonus, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party will probably never reach a wide audience. This means you can take Tobolowsky's stories (and his brilliant gesticulations) and pass them off as your own. Don't think of it as stealing, think of yourself as taking part in the oral tradition.
Monster DVD has done a fairly good job with this release. The film was shot on high definition video, and the transfer provides a clear and clean picture. The soundtrack consists almost exclusively of Tobolowsky's voice with snippets of minimalist piano accompaniment (also provided by Tobolowsky). Neither of these demands much of the soundtrack, but both are sharp. Clearly the sweetest plum of the extras is the 90 minutes of additional stories. Keep in mind the feature itself is only 87 minutes long, so this is like providing a sequel at no additional cost. These bonus stories, as a whole, are probably more entertaining than those used in the actual movie. My guess is they were cut because none exhibited the pathos of the more somber tales used to add dramatic heft. These excised stories are also decidedly more ribald than those used in the film. In particular, his three tales of sexual perversion, involving a night in a Thai sex club, a night with a stripper, and a night with a prostitute, all introduce a kinkiness that was entirely absent from the feature.
For those who will never have the pleasure of hearing Tobolowsky tell his stories, let me just impart a little knowledge from this DVD: if you're stung by a sea urchin you're going to need someone to pee on you to disinfect the wound. If you're stung by a jellyfish, no matter what the locals say, hiring someone to pee on you is not going to do a thing. See, Tobolowsky's stories are not only entertaining, but educational as well.
I don't know if this guy is available for private functions, but if so, he would be a great asset to birthdays, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, or wherever people congregate. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Monster Releasing
• 90 minutes of never-before-seen additional stories
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