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Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

In a DVD release schedule packed with dopey rom-coms, CGI morphings, fireballs propelling action heroes into the camera, and The Dukes of Hazzard: Season Six, what a pleasure it is to find this small (very small), under-hyped, and refreshingly sincere and unaffected independent film. Stephen Tobolowsky is a Hollywood character actor. You know him, even if you don't know him. For 20 years he's been one of L.A.'s reliable workhorses, one of the broad-gauge, nearly anonymous actors you've seen everywhere -- Groundhog Day ("Ned Ryerson?" "BING!"), Memento, The Insider, episodes of Seinfeld, C.S.I., The West Wing, Deadwood and, oh, some 180 other films and TV gigs. It turns out that when you get him off the set and into the comfort of his Malibu home, with a pot of beer-boiled sausages for the barbecue, he's also one hell of a storyteller.

That's who we find in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party: a naturally affable raconteur at ease telling his friends funny, epiphanal, moving and often bizarre tales from his life. Think of Stephen (and we may call him Stephen) as a softer, rounder, more existentially content Spalding Gray, or the film as a My Dinner with Andre in a pullover sweater and sensible shoes. Both classically trained and disarmingly "one of us," when he employs the Pinteresque pause it's usually to hoist a beer.

Shot over one day in 2004, the birthday party is the setup for this album of Stephen's stories. Hosting friends over cake and candles and glasses clinked together, he dramatizes his twenty-one hours in a freezing pool with "vegetarian piranhas" and faulty mechanical face-eaters on the set of Bird on a Wire. And that time he talked his way out of a gun pressed to his head in a supermarket by inviting the gunman over to dinner. Being dragged off the street in Thailand and beaten with sticks by monks (it was a great honor). His mano-a-mano stare-down with an alpha-male dolphin. The effects of ammonia-laced marijuana while fronting a rock band. His early experiences as a young and hungry actor (Ronald McDonald had no need for commedia dell'arte training). The Christmas LSD ("if the dog talks to you, always listen"). The time Buzz magazine nominated him, temporarily, for the 100 Coolest Guys in L.A., a city he describes as "like Hell but with good restaurants."

His account of his girlfriend's (now wife's) unplanned pregnancy becomes a way to illuminate connections between the life-altering joys and losses we share with others. He played a KKK leader in Mississippi Burning, and his memories of a harrowing experience with real Klansmen during a late-night shoot leads to drinks raised in a toast to a young boy's courage and grace under pressure.

At 6'-2" and deep into male-pattern baldness of Shakespearean magnificence, he is so ordinary-looking that (he tells us) he's been mistaken for a forty-year-old box boy. He'd fit into a police lineup with Paul Giamatti, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman. That bland average-joeness really accents the telling of his more ribald stories, and most of those are in this DVD's 90 minutes of extra scenes. That's where we find his misadventures as a naif among the sex shows in Thailand, his all-night date with a stripper (it's not what you think), "live bug tacos," and a college frat party that involved a 300-pound prostitute and the phrase "sloppy twenty-seconds." How many of the details are authentic and how many does he embellish for dramatic or comedic license? When the teller is such good company, does it matter?

For first-time director (long-time cinematographer) Robert Brinkmann, this project is a personal labor of love for his old friend Stephen. With co-producer and editor Andrew Putschoegl, Brinkmann keeps the film simple and plain-speaking. After an opening story on Malibu beach -- with a timely cameo from a pair of dolphins -- we're in Stephen's kitchen (copper cookware, nice), out back by the grill, or in his living room, where the camera places us in the semi-circle of a dozen or so show-biz friends such as actors Mena Suvari, pre-Junebug Amy Adams in blue jeans, Greg Wagrowski and Stephen's wife, actor Ann Hearn. The rhythm gets shaken up now and then by personal testimonials from Suvari, Hearn and Wagrowski, but the rest of the time it's all Stephen's show.

Other than some of the stories feeling necessarily shaped and rehearsed, the film displays a welcome lack of artifice. Brinkmann and Putschoegl let us sometimes glimpse another camera, and they add no techniques flashier than professional, good-looking point-and-shoot. It never pretends to be more than what it is, and that's one of the reasons it works so well. It's entertainment stripped down to Aristotelian elementals: a gifted artist telling stories. Its intentions toward a personal connection between subject and audience deliver such a pleasant change that Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party deserves an audience beyond the festival circuit where its buzz began.

In an email Putschoegl told me that "it appears to have an almost universal appeal." Indeed. While viewing this disc a second time, my wife, smitten, uttered, "I want to know him." Then our resident hip-hopping teenager, transfixed, turned to me and said, "Why isn't he your friend?"

So Stephen, next time you're in Seattle, call.

About the DVD

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party was released on DVD in 2006 (on, in fact, the day of Stephen's 55th birthday party). So that the filmmakers' investment returns stay where they belong, with the filmmakers, the DVD is available through the official web site, plus Amazon.com and Netflix. The web site also includes some terrifically amusing trailers not found on the DVD.

It's a well-produced disc. Shot on high-definition video, the image (anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1) delivers a faultless presentation. The DD 2.0 stereo surround audio isn't showy, though Stephen's occasional piano support (Bach's Prelude #1 in C Major, Debussy's "Clair de lune") spreads the sound around the room a bit.

For extras we get those "More Stories" already mentioned. Any of these fourteen self-contained outtakes could easily work within the film. Together they become a slightly raunchier ad hoc STBP: Part II that's longer than the main attraction's 87 minutes. It's all gold, and their presence here is a welcome bonus. Also here is the clever trailer shot at the Aspen Comedy Festival.

—Mark Bourne

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