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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Stephen Tobolowski's Birthday Party" (2005)



As I watched “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,” I could not help but imagine a particular conversation taking place between two producers having lunch together. “What are you working on?” asks one producer. “I’m producing a movie with Tommy Lee Jones where he’s a cop who has to go undercover and live in a house with a bunch of rambunctious cheerleaders. It’s very quirky and funny and could be just the right project for Jones’ comeback. He needs one, you know, and the material is perfect for mainstream audiences.” The other producer looks down at his plate and reluctantly nods in agreement. “What are you working on?” asks the “Man of the House” producer. “Well…My movie is about Stephen Tobolowsky talking for 90 minutes.”


Pause.


The Man of the House producer stares at his friend for what seems like 90 minutes of nobody talking. The Stephen Tobolowsky producer looks up from his salad and stares at his Man of the House producer friend without batting an eyelash. “You are joking, right? What is this, a pet project or something? Seriously, what are you working on?”

“That’s it,” says the Stephen Tobolowsky producer.

“That’s it?”

“Yup.”

The Man of the House Producer looks down at his cesar salad and picks at it with his fork, trying like hell to process the thought. He tries to be supportive.

“Gee, that sounds…um…why?”

Secretly hoping this question would come up, the Stephen Tobolowsky producer looks at his friend and essentially launches into a pitch.

“Have you ever heard this guy? He’s an amazing storyteller. I’ve been at parties where he’ll be in a corner talking to a friend and telling them this unbelievable true story of something that happened to him. Next thing you know, he has the whole room listening. It’s quite extraordinary.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” the Man of the House producer interrupts. “We’re talking about that balding character actor from Groundhog Day and Sneakers, right? That guy?”

“That guy.”

“He’s your star?”

“For a full 86 minutes.”

“Him talking.”

“Telling stories.”

“To the camera?’

“Sometimes.”

“What about other times?”

“Sometimes he’s talking to us and sometimes he’s talking to party guests.”

“Party guests, like…”

“Mena Suvari was there.”

The Man of the House producer breathes a sigh of relief. “Thank God! For a minute there, I thought you were telling me there were no hot chicks in this thing. Who else?” The Stephen Tobolowsky producer rolls his eyes.

“She doesn’t do anything,” he says. “She just listens. She’s a friend of his. The whole thing takes place on his birthday. We started filming at dawn and just asked him to tell stories all day. By the end of the day, he was all talked out and what we have in the film is his best stuff.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” says the Man of the House producer. “What does this guy talk about for 86 minutes that makes it sooooooo fascinating?”

“He talks about one of his earliest auditions of his career. He went out for the part of Ronald MacDonald. This is a classically trained stage actor, this guy, and he’s trying to kick off his acting career with a role as a clown. I’m not doing it justice. You have to hear him tell it.”

“Okay.”

“He talks about how he was held hostage at gunpoint in a grocery store,” says the Stephen Tobolowsky producer, launching into a list. “He talks about his role in Bird on a Wire and how he had to act alongside piranha fish. He talks about his days when he was the front man in a rock group and couldn’t sing because of something he took before a show.”

“But you don’t see this stuff,” says the Man of the House producer, trying to confirm everything he has just heard. “He just says it.”

“No, you don’t see it on the screen,” agrees the Stephen Tobolowsky producer. “But you see it clear as day in your head. He’s that good of a storyteller and the 86 minutes fly by and you just want to hear more.”

“I bet,” says the Man of the House producer, unsure of what to say next. “You know, that sounds like a movie that you would probably like, but what about everyone else? Who’s your target for this thing?”

“Anyone who enjoys great, unique storytelling.”

“Yeah, but everyone has a story to tell.”

“But not everyone can tell a great story,” says the Stephen Tobolowsky producer.

Pause.

The thought hangs in the air as the Man of the House producer secretly rethinks his Tommy Lee Jones project.

“Soooo,” the Stephen Tobolowsky producer says, breaking the silence. “Tommy Lee Jones and cheerleaders, huh?”

The Man of the House producer’s shoulders drop and lets his fork fall out of his hand, as though he has just been defeated. He remains defensive. “Yeah, what, not artsy enough for you?”

“Hey, don’t listen to me,” says the Stephen Tobolowsky producer graciously. “You obviously know this business better than I do. You obviously have a head for mainstream tastes and I’m sure this Tommy Lee Jones project is a step in the right direction for everyone involved. My movie will lurk in film festivals and the best I can hope for is a limited release in New York and LA arthouses. What do I know?”

The Man of the House producer thinks that maybe his friend knows more than he lets on. “Can I see it?”

“What?”

“The movie.”

“You wanna see Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party?”

“Yeah,” says the Man of the House producer in all sincerity. “I’m intrigued.”

“Sure,” says the Stephen Tobolowsky producer. “I have a video of it at home. Let’s go.”

The two pay the check, get up and head out of the restaurant.

“You wanna see a cut of my movie?”

“The Tommy Lee Jones one?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you be terribly offended if I said no?”

The Man of the House producer thinks for a moment. “Are you kidding?” he says finally. “Even I don’t wanna see that piece of crap.”

In a perfect world, this conversation would take place more often, or perhaps not at all, seeing as how in a perfect world there wouldn’t be any Tommy Lee Jones/cheerleader movies. But it goes to show how some bad movie ideas look and sound great as a marketing ploy and how some great movies sound questionable as entertainment. I, for one, miss the likes of Spalding Gray and his one-man movies. “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party”—by far, the most entertaining film I’ve seen all year—reminded me of how simple storytelling has become a lost art, one that has been lost on too many Hollywood executives for a long, long time.


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