The Primary Instinct is, on the surface, simply a recorded version of Stephen Tobolowsky doing a one-person show. It comes across similarly to the carefully crafted HBO specials that comedians do after a year or so of practicing the set in city after city (and for all I know, that was the exact process by which this film came to be). To reduce the film to simply that though does it, Tobolowsky, and David Chen (making his directorial debut) a disservice. The film is all about understanding why stories work and why we tell them. It accomplishes that rather bluntly by having Tobolowsky literally tell the (live and at-home) audience stories from his life.
The film masterly crafts the larger story it is telling by hiding behind all the smaller stories Tobolowsky tells (all of which seem to run the gamut of emotions) along the way. While Tobolowsky obviously knows the beginning, middle, and end of his act, he is still the main character of a journey, and you can see the emotional change he goes through in the story.
That story is brilliant for its simplicity. Stephen Tobolowsky, an actor who has appeared in over 200 film and television projects, is simply another human being on this planet who has experienced the ups and downs that any person has to experience in order to be alive. The simple act of telling stories from his life is the kind of transcendent experience that he believes human beings crave (and is the titular Primary Instinct). It may sound like a trite story to tell, but Tobolowsky is so good at recounting various salient moments from his life that you realize that the mere act of going on the journey with him is so rewarding that there is sincere importance to the whole film.
Towards the end of his act, Stephen Tobolowsky theorizes that, “The reason we tell these stories is because they’re holy.” I would perhaps quibble with that description, but there is no denying that the first-time director, Chen, captures these stories and delivers them to us in a way that certainly feels rewarding on a spiritual level.