Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Michael Wittenborn, Lucy Russell, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Putter, Hadewych Minis, Ingrid Bisu
Director: Marden Ade
Running time: 2 hours 42 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
To some extent, Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann is a film about self-actualization and whether or not human beings can be happy with successful careers even if they are essentially alone in the universe. The story of workaholic Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) and her prickly relationship with her estranged father, Winfred (Peter Simonischek) has dashes of physical slapstick and corporate culture satire, but it eventually moves into areas of unexpected depth through the power of comic vignette. Above all else, Toni Erdmann is a film which speaks to the generational span inherent within a family unit, seeking to the bridge the gap through a mixture of humor and subtle pathos.
At 162 minutes, the film is longer than a traditional comedy and probably stretches out its first half to the breaking point. However, comedy is not the only modus operandi here, and the picture's refusal to push for easy gags and jokes means the humor has the awkwardness of human behavior which feels germane to the lives of people milling around in a specific socioeconomic environment. What isn't exactly germane to relatable human behavior is Winfred's prankster ambitions; with his variety of disguises, fake teeth, floppy wigs, and heart monitor, all of which seem to exist as a natural extension of his loneliness. When he takes a trip to visit his daughter in her corporate work environment, the film plays their estrangement for uncomfortable laughs, as when Ines completely ignores him while surrounded by her male co-workers. What could come across as complete farce is given layers of shading by Simonischek, who gamely upends expectations as the mischievous dad that just won't go away.
Made's film is at its best during the second half, where Winfred assumes the role of "Toni Erdmann", a life coach dropping by to instruct Ines as she prepares for an important business deal. What began as an uneasy father-daughter bonding story gradually transforms into a tale of self-actualization and gamesmanship, with Ines going toe-to-toe with Winfred in order to keep up the rouse. This is actualized through a variety of comic set-pieces; a tryst between Ines and a co-worker (Trystan Putter) in which she dominates her male suitor to hilarious effect, a Bulgarian Orthodox Easter celebration that turns into a triumphant rendition of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All", and a final birthday party which takes social discomfort into new realms of awkward absurdity.
Had Toni Erdmann simply ended at that final celebration, Ade's deconstruction of familial bonds, sexism, capitalism, and self-worth would have proved sublime, but there's a sense in which the film cops out in order to elicit a feeling of father-daughter reconciliation that it never quite earns. As a darkly funny riff on two people separated by generations but joined by blood who come to find the value in competition and role-play, the picture is gracefully astute about human nature. As a father-daughter drama in which the capitalist drone learns something about shedding her thick skin from her eccentric, free-spirited old man, the film is less persuasive. Still, it's tough not to smile at the sight of Simonischek, decked out in Jerry Lewis-esque dentures while stumbling through a nightclub, hoping to put a well placed whoopie cushion under an unsuspecting ass.