My favorite kind of actor is a That Guy actor. You know -- the actors who turn up in 400 thousand movies, and you definitely recognize them, but darned if you know their names. Yeah, That Guys.
Well, here's a documentary about one.
Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (2005)
Prolific That Guy actor Stephen Tobolowski gets interviewed about his life and career. His friends are also interviewed at his birthday party.
OK, we're all familiar with the concept of a Hollywood "That Guy", right? A That Guy is an actor who has appeared in dozens, if not hundreds, of films, but has never achieved stardom. You see him in a movie; you recognize him; but you don't know his name. Such an actor never stars in anything, but he pops up in countless supporting roles with an appearance that never seems to change. Maybe if you spotted him in a restaurant or something, you'd tap your companion on the elbow and say, "Hey, I know that guy!" but that's as far as the situation could go. Below are some examples of That Guys:
Anyway, several years ago, I had the idea of doing a documentary about a That Guy. I hadn't settled on which one, but I figured that I could find one that everybody would recognize, and do a series of interviews with him about his long career in Hollywood. Maybe he'd have lots of great stories about working with the A-listers. What would he have to say about never quite reaching that status himself??? Would you rather work constantly in smaller roles, or would you have preferred to hit the big-time, if even temporarily? Did your acting career pan out like you'd once hoped? Hey, it seemed like an interesting idea at the time. The film would have been called That Guy.
Needless to say, of course, I never even came close to pursuing such a project; but that's OK -- REAL filmmaker Robert Brinkman got the same idea a few years later, and actually did something with it.
Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is basically what I described above. The prolific That Guy (perhaps best known for playing annoying salesman Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day) shares stories from his long career at his 50th birthday bash. Now, I THOUGHT that the movie would be fascinating, but I must admit that its great concept started to wear thin pretty quick. Although Stephen seems like a really nice guy, his stories...well...they're kinda boring. He doesn't say much about the hundreds of TV shows and motion pictures he's worked on, and instead mostly focuses on things from his private life. While it might be somewhat charming to listen to someone like him recall the day his daughter was born, it doesn't make for a good 90 minute documentary.
I was hoping to learn more about what it's like to work in Hollywood than what it's like to be a family man who must spend a lot of time away from home. Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party is a compelling enough study of an individual, but it doesn't quite live up to its real potential. I wanted to hear DIRT about the big stars with whom Stephen has worked! Then again, a veteran like him would probably be too smart to go around sharing such stories. To be a successful That Guy, you've got to be well-liked by those around you.
I must hand it Robert Brinkman for having a fantastic idea for a film. Plus, Stephen seems lie a nice guy. In the end, however, that's really all this one amounts to -- a great concept that doesn't hold up so well when executed.
2 out of 5.