Toni Erdmann blends comedy and pathos, and is surreal in circumstance, yet realist in performance. Inventive filmmaking that sets out to confound expectations, and works most of the time.
Winifried (Peter Simonischek) and his 30-something daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) appear to be polar opposites. Winifried is a recently retired music teacher with a penchant for practical joking and pranks, while Ines is an icy, ambitious corporate careerist who only smiles when ingratiating herself to clients.
When Winifried’s beloved dog dies he departs his German home to visit Ines, who is stationed in Bucharest. She makes little time for her father, who tags along with her to business presentations and social gatherings that function mostly as networking and palm-greasing opportunities. Winifried is not impressed with Ines’ work-centric lifestyle and ladder-climbing mindset, and she regards him as an embarrassing burden. They soon reach an impasse, and Winifried returns home.
Except he doesn’t. Instead, he dons a shabby suit and unruly wig, crams a set of over-sized false teeth into his face, and begins turning up at Ines’ engagements claiming to be “Toni Erdmann”, her CEO’s life coach. At first, Ines is aghast, but begins to warm to the game, and it emerges that father and daughter have more in common than initially apparent.
It takes a while to adjust to the tone of this strange film, which blends comedy and pathos and is surreal in circumstance, yet realist in performance. It is not remotely believable that a ruthless high flyer like Ines would tolerate the intrusion of Toni-aka-Vater in her corporate world, or that the Toni character would be accepted as good-naturedly he is by the business types who populate it. However, the superb Sandra Hüller’s extraordinarily naturalistic acting provides a counterbalance to the bizarre setup and Herr Erdman’s antics, and thus the disparate elements cohere. They shouldn’t, but they do.
As Toni Erdmann’s sending up of the corporate world Ines takes oh-so-seriously begins to bite, she shows signs of thawing. In the most poignant and intriguing scene of the film, while visiting the family of one of her business contacts with Toni (who is posing as the German ambassador to Romania), she surprisingly accedes to his request to perform a song for their hosts. As he accompanies her on a cheap domestic keyboard, she launches into a rendition of Whitney Houston’s cheesy The Greatest Love of All – which begs the question as to whether there are precedents to this performance back in their shared family history.
Ines’ singing is off-key and painful to listen to, especially when she opens up for a big finish and hits some glarey notes that set your fillings on edge. BUT, it’s so heartfelt! She is finally taking the risk of being herself; her father has succeeded in putting her back in touch with her humanity, although it’s taken extreme measures on his part to achieve it. This is uncomfortable stuff for the viewer. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, and I suspect that’s precisely the duality of response writer/director Maren Ade is aiming for throughout, although not always as successfully as in this scene, which marks the dramatic peak of the film.
The newly awakened Ines subsequently throws a nude party for her work colleagues. Mildly amusing, but symbolically over-obvious and implausible, a step too far. As is Toni turning up in a giant hairy monster suit. This late in the movie, his act is wearing thin. The narrative is out of breath by the time it reaches the finish line, but the subdued ending is tone-perfect.
The movie could have done with some tightening up. It is uneven in pace, and at 162 minutes is too long. And it has to be said, Toni’s gags do get tedious and a bit silly at times. Overall, though, this is inventive filmmaking that sets out to confound expectations, dares to be different and works most of the time.
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