The Most Beautiful Fraud: Toni Erdmann

Who among us does not practically break a leg running to the box office when we hear those magical words “three-hour bittersweet German art dramedy”?  The third film by the director Maren Ade, whose work I have never seen but which has been highly praised by those who have, seems like the most unlikely candidate for box office success (though it was a huge hit in Germany), critical acclaim (though it has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film), or overseas export (though it enjoyed an extended run in arthouse theaters all over the country and has been tapped for an American remake starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig).  And yet Toni Erdmann defies expectations in the real world just as often as it pleasantly frustrates our assumptions as a film.

The story of Toni Erdmann is boringly simple.  Winfried Condradi (Peter Simonischek) is a high school music teacher with little direction in life and a goofy sense of humor; he specializes in mortifying his family with dad jokes taken to a level of lunacy by his performative commitment.  He’s divorced and lives alone with an ancient, deaf dog that he has to carry everywhere.  When the dog finally dies, Condradi decides to take his show on the road, visiting his highly strung daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) at her job in Romania.  While Winfried is a shambling, freewheeling mess, his daughter is a consummate professional, successful and highly focused but with with a hypnotic dedication to always appearing proper and correct, at the cost of keeping her own reservations about the work and what it has made her into tightly repressed.  Her father appears in her life at a crucial moment in her career, putting on a set of oversized false teeth and an unconvincing rock star wig and turning up at client meetings and diplomatic soirees to wreak havoc.

It’s the very simplicity of the idea that lures the viewer into thinking this is something they’ve seen a thousand times before, and it is:  but the genius of Toni Erdmann (the title is the name Winfried uses when he’s dressed in his fright wig and chompers) is that it almost never goes in the direction promised by the premise.  Most movies would give us a low-key, reputedly ‘charming’ but actually insulting story about a stuck-up woman whose professional life has made her too big for her britches and who learns to love again through some focused humiliation from her fun-loving dad.  (It’s unfair to judge before the thing is even written, but I’d bet money this is the direction the American remake will take.)  But Toni Erdmann frustrates that expectation time and time again.  Winifried doesn’t seem all that zany, or even especially happy; his clowning satisfies some need in his soul, but it’s more of a coping mechanism than it is an infectiously disarming way to make everyone around him feel the magic of living.  And while Ines does indeed eventually succumb to her dad’s relentless attempts to stumble ass-backwards into her life, her reaction isn’t to change her life or to have some artificial epiphany; it’s more like another surrender she has to make to keep another relationship going.

In its bitter moments and its sweet ones, Toni Erdmann pleasingly zigs when you think it’s going to zag.  There are no false moments of reconciliation or realization; just stages of love and acceptance that come with the realization that family never stops being family.  There’s no one moment where the movie grinds to a halt and demands we look at how sensitive it is; even its final scenes are ones of understated simplicity between the father and daughter.  Setting us up to think that Ines is frigid or worse, Toni Erdmann instead gives us her frankly lunatic boyfriend and leaves us to contemplate the icky spectacle of their form of lovemaking; likewise, when Winifried dons his wig and teeth and navigates the world of high corporate finance, it doesn’t ask us to believe, as might a broader satire, that these people actually believe he is who he says he is.  They don’t buy it for a minute, but a combination of rehearsed boardroom politeness and the familiar corporate reluctance to call things what they really are allows him to wreak his special kind of havoc.  It’s on this level, as well as in the way that the excellent Hüller portrays a deeply compromised woman who clearly doesn’t like her job but has become the prisoner of her own success, that Toni Erdmann flies so high not just as a family comedy, but as a sharply pointed dismantling of big business.

There’s always a risk in foreign films, even ones made in more familiar western European cultures, that a lot of the jokes won’t translate.  But Toni Erdmann is consistently hilarious, both in subtle digs and in broad, ludicrous gags, from the first scene (where Winifried strings along a hapless deliveryman) to the sustained insanity in the end (where Ines, finally at her wit’s end in that familiar way where some tiny mishap becomes an intolerable back-breaking frustration, greets her guests at a business function stark naked and demands they do the same).  A scene where her father appears at a party dressed in a hideous kukeri costume and refuses to identify himself had me rolling, as did a moment where he sits at a piano and compels her to deliver a emotive, over-the-top rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” — a scene that speaks to some prolonged weirdness in the pair’s past that’s never fully explained but which informs their whole dynamic.  The acting is natural and professional at the same time, and it aids tremendously scenes like the one early on, when Winifried informs his daughter (falsely) that he’s come to visit her for a month:  after witnessing her tamped-down but apparent reaction, he mutters, “That was real fear.”  It’s one of the best comedic line deliveries of the year.

The main problem Toni Erdmann has is its length.  Most critics agree that, for a movie that clocks in at a fat 162 minutes, it goes by pretty quickly, and I can’t disagree, but the fact remains that as enjoyable as it is, it absolutely didn’t need to be that long.  It’s also got a pretty bad case of Euro-pacing, and Patrick Orth’s cinematography, while excellent, looks like it belongs in a whole different film that’s going in a whole different direction at a whole different speed.  But these are pretty minor quibbles for a movie that could have gone badly a dozen times and at each juncture turned out to be a truly satisfying surprise.  See it now before American studios have a chance to ruin it.

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