THE PRIMARY INSTINCT Movie Review – Stephen Tobolowsky Tells A Great Story
The Primary Instinct is a concert film starring Stephen Tobolowsky and directed by David Chen. Stephen Tobolowsky is a character actor most notable, at least to me, for his performances as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (BING!) and Sammy Jankis in Memento (Bing again!). Tobolowsky has appeared in over 200 films and TV shows over his career. He’s always been a character actor. One of those “oh, that guy!” guys. So, why is a noted character actor starring in a concert film? Turns out that Stephen Tobolowsky has a hobby: he tells really, really good stories.
Now, full disclosure: I’m a Kickstarter backer of The Primary Instinct. As a Kickstarter backer, I got to see the movie via an online screener this weekend when it also had its worldwide premier at the Seattle International Film Festival. Kickstarter backers don’t get a cut of the profits, so I stand very little to gain by writing a positive review of the film. So, can we all agree that ethically I’m on solid ground here? Sure, my opinion may be compromised by my seeming proximity to the film (my name IS in the credits), but reviews are subjective anyway. Let’s carry on, shall we?
The title “The Primary Instinct,” refers to the thematic through line of the stories Stephen Tobolowsky tells during the film. I’m not going to spoil, specifically, that theme or what the stories entail here. They’re best experienced by watching Stephen as he tells the stories. But you should know that this film deals with love, memory, nostalgia, parents, fate, the Green Bay Packers, science, the power of storytelling and matters of Talmudic significance. But that’s typical of Stephen Tobolowsky’s stories. They’re always about matters that are at once mundane and profound. A story about his mother and some pennies will, in his capable hands, teach you something about the meaning of life.
For the uninitiated, Tobolowsky has been telling these types of stories for a while. Before the creation of this film, Tobolowsky was (and still is) the star of a sometimes weekly podcast called The Tobolowsky Files where he tells two to three stories per 40 minute episode. The stories are usually related thematically if not by the specific content. When The Tobolowsky Files first started they seemed like a random collection of stories that just happened to be about and told by Stephen Tobolowsky. But as the podcast went on it became clear to me that Tobolowsky was telling his life story in pieces. The pieces rarely come in order and sometimes the full significance of one story won’t become clear for several episodes, but each story is a little piece of Stephen’s life, laid bare and told beautifully.
Before The Tobolowsky Files there was ANOTHER film called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, directed by Robert Brinkman. In this film Stephen also tells a series of stories, but instead of a concert film, we’re just hanging out with Stephen on his birthday as he tells stories, sometimes to the camera and sometimes to a group of friends who have come over for dinner. Some of his friends are famous (Mena Suvari and Amy Adams both make appearances) and some of his friends are not. All are enraptured by the stories Stephen tells.
The Primary Instinct is bookended by an Errol Morris style interview with Stephen as he talks a bit about his career and also about why we tell stories. His passion for storytelling is evident. You can tell he loves it. His presence both in the interview and then in the concert is bright and immediate. He tells his stories with such vibrancy that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a performance. There were several times during the film where I completely forgot that I was watching a concert film. It was almost as if Stephen Tobolowsky was standing in my living room, telling me this story.
I’m not sure when or if you’re going to be able to see The Primary Instinct. As far as I know it has not been picked up for theatrical or home video distribution. The film has a minor technical flaw dealing with how Stephen was miked during the concert. It’s an unfortunate distraction at times. Otherwise, the film is quite good. Director David Chen is notable as the host of The Slashfilmcast, a weekly film news and review podcast. He’s also the host of The Tobolowsky Files. This is his first feature directing credit and I’d love to see more of his work, be it documentary or fiction.
As a concert film, The Primary Instinct works very well. As a continuation of Stephen’s life story it’s transcendent. He’s able to weave stories from all through his life, from early childhood up to the recent past, into a story that is funny and sad and profound. If you get the chance I would highly recommend seeing the film. I hope you do.