(SPOILERS) It’s easy to see why Maren Ade’s rambling, rumpled – it rather resembles its protagonist in form – tragi-comedy was instantly snapped up by Hollywood (or more especially by Jack Nicholson, promising to come out of retirement for a golden role; we shall see…), as, with a few minor tweaks and a directive to over- rather than underplay, it bears all the hallmarks of a classic uplifting Hollywood narrative. I’m not sure I buy into its miraculous hype, however (including a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination and Sight & Sound’s best film of 2016). The performances in Toni Erdmann are top notch, the scenarios often funny, sad, excruciating, but it’s also content to meander and overly devotes itself to the idea that vérité equates to depth.
The S&S synopsis summarised the picture thus: “A shambling baby boomer pushes his high-achieving daughter’s buttons with a series of increasingly bizarre practical jokes”. Which makes it sound like it would have been ideal for Robin Williams. But suggesting Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is so calculated is to falsely present the picture. His guise as Toni Erdmann is as improvised and unstructured as Ade’s directorial style, and his jokes often come nowhere near to paying off – commonly amounting to little more than his ever-ready upper dentures, a brunette wig and announcing himself as variously a life coach or the German Ambassador to Romania. Indeed, Ade resists so consistently the opportunity for a cathartic comic set piece (Winfried puts the corporate machine in its place! Winfried humiliates the priapic boyfriend!) that you can practically see the Tinseltown hacks salivating at the potential.
That’s because the essential arc is that of your classic big screen comedy; free-spirited parent imposes himself on his uptight, emotionally-sterile daughter’s life with hilarious and meaningful results. Add in the disguise aspect, albeit not even remotely fooling anyone who knows – the most mirthful results come at the outset, when Winfried poses as his twin brother for the postie, speaking enthusiastically about the mail bomb he’s just received and can’t wait to defuse – and you have potential for schmaltz-heavy sentiment and Mrs Doubtfire hijinks.
Toni Erdmann doesn’t play that way, and resists the easy fix/resolution. Winfried is no paragon of virtue; in many respects, he’s just as lost as his daughter, only with a less overtly debilitating approach to how he deals with it. But still, his wife left him for reasons that don’t need spelling out, his best friend is his on-his-last-legs dog, and with an approach of always being “on”, it isn’t hard to see why even moderate and well-rounded offspring would have reservations about spending swathes of time with him.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) is a consultant advising the oil industry on downsizing, so a combination of turn-offs right there. She entirely goes with the get-ahead flow, soullessly giving her assistant (who hangs on her every instruction, and even found Ines’ apartment for her) performance tips. And as much as she may know her job, her iciness inevitably backfires when trying to impress, particularly with her father hanging on. He’s already told the CEO (Michael Wittenborn) she’s attempting to get on board that he has hired a substitute daughter (later, when Ines attempts to ditch dad for drinks with the CEO, the latter scolds her attitude). She feigns concern for Winfred being ditched while she spends hours shopping with the CEO’s wife (“Are you really a human?” he responds) and proceeds to scornfully dismiss the loss of his beloved pet to friends (only to find her father sitting at the bar next to her).
But something of him begins to work its way into her psyche. “Toni” has struck a chord, such that, even though she can accuse her father of being as lacking in perspective as she (“Do you have plans in life, other than slipping far cushions under people”: “I don’t have a fart cushion”), she can’t help laughing a few scenes later when her father, on a bench, interrupts her boss with an explosive outburst (“Did he just fart?”)
Ines slow breakdown manifests in increasingly bewildering/humorous fashion (and from the first, we can see she’s her father’s daughter, matching him for cutting ripostes – “Great. She can call you on your birthday so I don’t have to” is her reaction to “news” of his substitute daughter), instructing her colleague/lover to ejaculate on a petit-four (which she proceeds to consume) and her outpouring of emotion in song – under pressure from Toni, for whom she is posing as his assistant – in a manner she cannot otherwise express.
The slowly poisonous consequences of a job in which she is causing others misery and destitution hits home when Toni takes issue with the sacking of an employee as a result of a joke remark he made. She dismisses his “green” attitude and conciliatory gestures (“I can’t believe you told them not to lose their humour”), leading to her alarming/hilarious meltdown decision to turned her birthday into a “naked party”. At which Winfried also appears, dressed as a Bulgarian kukeri (I assumed it was a yeti) leading to her heartfelt hugging of her hirsute father.
It’s appropriate that there’s no upbeat resolution to Toni Erdmann, though. Ines hasn’t left her job; rather, she’s sidestepped from Bucharest to Singapore. Toni may have reconnected with her, but his world is one of increasing isolation (his dog and then his mother die), and he finds himself contemplating how the precious moments can only be perceived with hindsight. His life, and ours, are “so often about getting things done”. So yeah, put a positive spin on that, and it could be a goldmine. Let’s face it, there isn’t much depth to its critique of globalisation (it hurts people, and you most of all when you go along with it), so that could probably stay as is. And when Jack drops out, perhaps find someone who more approximates Simmonischek’s bearish gait – Ron Perlman springs to mind. Also, honing the material a touch would do no harm either.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.