There’s no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stakes and major laughs. It’s funny and it has perverse and zany moments as well, that’s undeniable, but it’s also a movie about status and existential crises. Toni Erdmann becomes downright melancholy at times, and stretches of the film are contemplatively slow. I think the actual movie might have gotten lost in the hyperbolic one-upsmanship of the festival critic echo chamber.
In a press conference after a screening of the film, writer/director Maren Ade seemed to push back against the hype with an extreme undersell. “It’s a movie about humor, but it’s not very funny,” she said. Maybe that’s just her German sense of humor.
Toni Erdmann is less of a screwball comedy and more of a cringe dramedy. A little less like His Girl Friday, a little more The Office (but one of the thoughtful episodes). This father-daughter story is voluminous and strange, and moments don’t always fit together. Yet maybe that’s a way of mirroring the shape of strained parent-child relationships in adult life: they’re weird, they’re difficult, and yet they’re worthwhile.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the US theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Maren Ade
Release Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)
I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont’s dad.
Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She’s a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She’s always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. “I want to be roughed up,” she smiles.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried’s got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It’s not hard to see why Ines’ mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he’s a bit of a chaos agent. The man can’t take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into “Toni Meerkat”.
Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann. They’re familiar in an obvious way, as if from another movie that’s far safer and more conventional.
Perhaps Ade sensed this slip into the obvious when sculpting the final edit. A character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. It doesn’t prevent Ines’ reconnection with the world of the common folk from feeling like an expected destination. Toni isn’t just his daughter’s Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines’ office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. Consequently, other reconciliations in the movie felt inevitable to me.
When Toni Erdmann lets go, it’s at its best, whether it’s a bit of kink involving pastries or a belting out a tune. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she’s at the verge of a breakdown. She’s a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left.
Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter.
A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that; so is Toni Erdmann.