German comedy-drama finds odd connection between ridiculous father and uptight daughter
Toni Erdmann (2017)
Directed by Maren Ade
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller
One sure sign of the success of a foreign film is how quickly the American remake rights get snapped up. The German dramedy Toni Erdmann—already the front runner to win this year’s “Best Foreign Language Feature” category at the Oscars—has been snapped up by Paramount Pictures. Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig are already attached to star—despite the fact that the original is just now starting to see release stateside. Clearly, a lot of people are hyped on this film. And for the right audiences, that hype will be more than justified.
The film centers on Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an aging German music teacher trying his best to maintain the strained relationship he has with his ex-wife and adult daughter. Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is a go-go businesswoman will little time or patience for family niceties. They only cut into her time climbing the corporate ladder. And frankly, her father can be a bit of an embarrassment. Winfried is a sad, lonely, rumpled old dude whose only true companion is his elderly dog. He tries to connect with others through his goofy sense of humor and elaborate practical jokes, many involving fake teeth, ridiculous lies and a phony twin brother named Toni. But most people just don’t get the punchline.
When Winfried’s dog passes away, he jets off to Romania on the spur of the moment to visit his politely estranged daughter. She’s in the middle of a multimillion dollar business negotiation and doesn’t really have time for her dad’s shenanigans. After an uncomfortable week of failing to connect, Winfried returns home to Germany. Except he doesn’t. The very next day, dad pops back into Ines’ life wearing a silly wig and false teeth and claiming to be famous life coach “Toni Erdmann.” Mortified, and afraid of exposing herself to her colleagues, Ines sort of plays along. Hijinks, of course, ensue. It’s a wacky enough setup, and it’s easy to see what Hollywood saw in the bones of this odd, slippery comedy-drama.
At more than 2 hours and 40 minutes, though, Toni Erdmann is in no hurry to tell its story. And as it progresses, it becomes harder and harder to get a grip on what it’s saying, exactly. But this far-fetched tale rewards patience. The first third of the film is a mostly bittersweet tale about a lonely father and his overly ambitious career woman daughter. The disconnect between father and daughter is sharply delineated and occasionally painful to watch. But by the time dad transforms into a borderline psychotic stalker in a fright wig, the film is juggling tones faster than audiences can tally them.
Drifting into the second half, the film grows steadily looser and more humorous. Coke-filled parties, overly enthusiastic karaoke sessions and chaotic business meetings follow. Of course the point of it all is for crazy old Winfried to highlight how empty Ines’ career goals and social circle are. She just needs to chill out and stop chasing that corporate dollar, right? Sort of. It’s to the credit of writer-director Maren Ade (Everyone Else) that Toni Erdmann doesn’t take the easy, feel-good way out. (Although it’s easy to imagine the American version will.) Winfried isn’t just some happy-go-lucky dude teaching his daughter how to loosen up her too-tight business suit. He’s a gauche, silly and emotionally broken man. His alter ego feels less like a wacky, life-affirming joke and more like a desperate cry for help. Ines, meanwhile, both hates and envies her money-grubbing, business card-toting coworkers. When she does break out of her shell—as she does during an outrageous naked birthday party—it’s with an almost desperate glee. These mad, muddled characters and their path to ... well, something south of redemption make for a deeply humanist film.
A wealth of subplots and a distinct lack of urgency in its storytelling bog Toni Erdmann down quite a bit. A zippy, laugh-a-minute comedy this is not. The masquerade at the center of the film is also patently preposterous. That anyone would believe Winfried’s crazy character getup—or suddenly find him funny and charming, despite the fact that he’s the same sad, lonely old dude—is a tough pill to swallow. But once you get your sea legs on this tonally turbulent comedy-drama, you’re likely to discover a great deal of amusement and a wealth of emotion. At least until Hollywood takes it out for retooling.