Review: ‘Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party’

Begging comparisons to "My Dinner With Andre" and filmed monologues by the late, great Spalding Gray, pic impresses on its own terms as entertaining storytelling by an engaging raconteur. Character actor Tobolowsky does little more than recount anecdotes for lenser-turned-helmer Robert Brinkmann.

A correction was made to these credits on March 31, 2005.

Begging comparisons to “My Dinner With Andre” and filmed monologues by the late, great Spalding Gray, “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” impresses on its own terms as entertaining storytelling by an engaging raconteur. Character actor Tobolowsky does little more than recount anecdotes — either directly to the camera while preparing dinner, or to houseguests during his 53rd birthday celebration — for lenser-turned-helmer Robert Brinkmann. But that’s more than enough to sustain a pic that could post respectable theatrical numbers before many happy returns as a homevid and cable product.

Identified in Brinkmann’s fleeting narrative intro as a veteran of more than 150 films and television programs, Tobolowsky is immediately recognizable as a ubiquitous supporting player. (Auds unfamiliar with his name will likely remember his face from “Groundhog Day,” “Memento” and/or “Garfield: The Movie,” among many other pics.) Here, thesp effortlessly exudes charisma while spinning true-life tales in and around his Malibu home.

Whether he’s recalling “a kind of oceanic detente” with dolphins during an eventful swim, describing the depredations of wayward mechanical fish during production of “Bird on a Wire,” or confessing to unseemly eagerness as a young actor auditioning for a gig as (no kidding) Ronald McDonald, Tobolowsky doesn’t so much grab attention as invite interest. Easygoing and self-effacing, he’s consistently amusing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious. (Remembering an ill-fated LSD trip, he remarks with straight-faced sincerity: “If a dog talks to you, listen to him.”) Still, he’s not big on punch lines: His shaggy-dog stories end more often with the verbal equivalent of a conspiratorial wink or a “Go figure!” shrug.

Even when he strikes a delicately melancholy note, such as when he describes the death of a fellow actor or the tragic loss of another collaborator, Tobolowsky doesn’t push the emotional buttons too insistently. In fact, pic seems heavy-handed only when Brinkmann invites fawning (and, mercifully, brief) testimonials from well-wishers (including Ann Hearn, Tobolowsky’s wife) at the actor’s birthday party. Helmer would have done better to let Tobolowsky do all the talking.

High-def video lensing enhances the overall sense of intimacy.

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

Production

A Brinkmann Co. production. Produced by Robert Brinkmann. Co-producer, Andrew Putschoegl. Directed by Robert Brinkmann.

Crew

Camera (HD, color), Brinkmann; editors, Brinkmann, Andrew Putschoegl; sound, James Dehr. Reviewed at South by Southwest Film Festival (Spotlight), March 17, 2005. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Stephen Tobolowksy, Ann Hearn, Mena Suvari, Greg Wagrowski.
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