2015 Film Reviews

Review: David Chen’s ‘The Primary Instinct’


As the debut “documentary” from /Film podcaster David Chen, The Primary Instinct puts the spotlight on a man routinely consigned to the background — prolific character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. A prefatory interview leads into an approximately 60-minute live performance wherein the actor explores the subject at the core of humanity, and certainly of his own life, storytelling. An extension of Chen’s The Tobolowsky Files podcast, The Primary Instinct is a showcase for Tobolowsky’s extraordinary ability to tell effectual stories that routinely cultivate outpourings of laughter and breathless fits of tearfulness from his fascinated audience.

Ranging from minute-long snippets on his childhood to winding yet circular tales of love and loss, Tobolowsky prefaces his act with a singular notion, a theme towards which he unceasingly edges: why do “we” tell stories? Revolving around that simplistic posit (asked of him by an eight-year-old audience member at a previous engagement), a spectacular vision of life from Stephen’s eyes begins to emerge. He saunters through his initial pokes at an answer, offering some rather insightful observations on the nature of human interaction and behavior, inching his way towards a thoroughly comprehensive answer to a highly-abstract puzzle.

The heart of Tobolowsky’s anecdotal prowess — even above his comedically-inclined eloquence — is this ability to show the evolution of his thoughts. More than a straightforward walk through an enrichment of being, this meandering narrative grounds his tale in pointedly-human territory. Allowing the audience a lucidly-omnipresent look into his psyche, Tobolowsky invites us to explore the pathways of thought along his road to revelation while gently pressing us to do the same in our own lives. Weaving some truly hilarious yarns (and delivering several emotionally-devastating memoirs), Tobolowsky’s steadfastness throughout it all is an achievement in and of itself. (I would have cried 55 out of 60 of those minutes.)


A one-on-one intro and outro with Tobolowsky serves the intended purpose, however Chen and Tobolowsky also prove just how compelling an unscripted, day-in-the-life style documentary might have been. As potentially uninteresting as it could be, spending so much time with such a great orator made me want to witness him in an every day setting. I want to see Tobolowsky go shopping or audition for one of the many bit-parts he will undoubtedly play in the near future. As the man himself puts it (when speaking of pianist Arthur Rubenstein), “the audience wants to feel blood in the work,” and with The Primary Instinct, there is a prescient lack of blood (despite its crushing sincerity). A good documentary should be candid and personal, yet despite the intimacy of the stories, there is a distinct polish to the live performance that detracts from what this film could have been.

A remarkably pervasive journey through one man’s search for meaning in his own life, The Primary Instinct captures an utterly captivating performance in a very standard way. Ultimately, it’s not much more than a thought-provoking PR campaign for Tobolowsky’s speaking engagements, but perhaps the “film” will lead to a Marc Maron-esque career surge for the character actor and provide a solid basis for David Chen’s future as a director.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.