Sunday, March 22, 2009

Day Sixty-One: Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (2005) - Rank 3.5/5


It's common knowledge among my friends that I have a penchant for character actors. So much so that any time a film is recommended to me or others by my friends and it happens to have half a dozen of such thespians, it's colloquially referred to as a "Beau wet dream" (a bit of slang that's both funny and unsettling at the same time). I'm not sure why I'm big on character actors. It could be that character actors have the freedom to be cast for their eccentricities rather than suppressing them for a role. It could also be versatility. Whatever the reason, give me R. G. Armstrong, Catherine O'Hara or Jonathan Pryce any day over Brad Pitt or Paris Hilton. That's why a documentary surrounding a prominent character actor in Hollywood - Stephen Tobolowsky - sparked my interest greatly.

I held off watching it, because I originally wanted to spoof the premise (not the film) for my own movie, "Callus' Birthday Party," back in its early stages where I wanted to combine this film's premise with that of "Cloverfield." Ultimately, the Lynchian nightmare that emerged was far from both.

The documentary was shot in a similar vein to one of my favorite documentaries, "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." The film is driven by stories - anecdotes - and frequently the camera is set point blank on the subject's face. There's no distraction of cut away shots to still images or stock video, it's just the person on screen talking directly to you as if you were sitting right in front of them (which, in a way, you are). I guess you could refer to it almost as informal documentary filmmaking. Stephen, like Traudl Junge of the aforementioned documentary, is a master raconteur, drawing you in with vivid anecdotes and great wit. The audience is treated to some of his best tales as recounts them for the camera, and them later at his birthday, to his guests.

A project like this could easily be viewed as self-indulgent or egotistic, but it never comes off as such. However, at best, I feel like the only purpose to the film is it's the director's way of saying, "Hey, I know someone cool. Check it out." If there is some other purpose to the documentary, whether it be a character study of Stephen or something more, it's never made clear. It's simply a collection of great stories told by a single person. My only other issues were that the party guests simply sat around in a semi-circle, quietly listening to Stephen as he talked (giving the film a sense of artificiality) and that I felt like the anecdotes never tied up as neatly as they should, leaving the ending feeling premature (or long overdue - I'm not sure which). Still, Stephen's anecdotes quickly draw you in and hold you until the end in an almost hypnotic manner, a quality certainly absent in many interviewees in lesser documentaries.

Watch the Trailer

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