Stephen Tobolowsky is one of the busiest actors in Hollywood. He has appeared in more than 150 film and television projects over the last 20 years. While most people are not familiar with his name, almost everyone knows his characters: Ned Ryerson, the annoying insurance salesman in “Groundhog Day,” Clayton Townley, the local KKK leader in “Mississippi Burning” or Sammy Jankis in “Memento.” Stephen Tobolowsky is part of a disappearing group of actors - character actors - who are not major stars yet can make a living practicing their craft in Hollywood films.
In Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party filmmakers Robert Brinkmann and Andrew Putschoegl follow Stephen on his birthday and document a performance he gives for the cameras and a group of friends, during which he tells stories about his experiences in Hollywood. Instead of his regular role as a supporting actor, Stephen takes the stage in Birthday Party and shows that he has the charisma to hold the audience’s attention without the help of a script.
The film starts on a Malibu beach, where Stephen introduces himself and the film to the audience and leads right into the first story, Swimming with Dolphins. The film continues in his kitchen, where, as he prepares food for the party, Stephen tells stories about his early experiences in auditions, Ronald McDonald, Old Man Crossing the Road. He continues with other behind-the-scenes stories as he finishes the preparations in his yard, Lobsters on a Plane, Ann is Pregnant.
When the guests arrive, Stephen tells the stories of his being nominated as one of the 100 coolest people in Los Angeles by Buzz Magazine, Ronald Reagan, Held Up at Gunpoint, Beaten by Monks. The guests include many of Stephen’s actor friends, including Amy Adams, Mena Suvari, Greg Wagrowski and, of course, his wife Ann Hearn. Intercut with the stories are brief interviews, which offer a different perspective of Stephen from various points in his life. After celebrating with the birthday cake, Stephen tells stories about some outrageous drug experiences, Ammonia Pot, LSD Christmas, before returning to behind the scenes tales with Bird on a Wire and Mississippi Burning.
The film ends with a small after party gathering at which Stephen remembers his friend Bob Darnell with Meeting Bob and Bob’s Death. The end credit sequence, with actual photos from the stories he has just told, provides a fitting and satisfying finish.
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party is a return to the basics of entertainment. A film without action, without a script, and without a budget still manages to engage the audience and hold their interest with the oldest entertainment technique there is: storytelling.