While presenting itself as a family comedy with some thematic undertones, Toni Erdmann really pushes those distinctions past their limit.
Toni Erdmann is about how people fill the emptiness in their lives, and the ways they cope with the tedium, boringness, and melancholy that often invades its longer stretches. Eccentric Winfried (Peter Simonischek) concocts several different personas, practical jokes, and quips to make light of his rather lonely existence. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) lets her demanding job and career ambitions consume her, leaving her to become mostly a shell with no real connection to the people around her. Grieving the death of his dog and one true companion, Winfried decides to surprise Ines in Bucharest, Romania, where she is located. When he sees the life of constant dinner dates, meetings, and superficiality that she leads, he decides to force his way into her social circle as one of his alter egos, Toni Erdmann, adorned in a long curly wig and fake teeth.
While presenting itself as a family comedy with some thematic undertones, Toni Erdmann really pushes those distinctions past their limit, becoming one of the bleaker and restrained dark comedies to come out in recent years. The humor in it is so short and fleeting, and the general sad and defeated tone is so unrelenting, that the comedic antics of Winfried really stop being flat-out funny and more telling of his general weakness as a washed-up clown and underappreciated parent.
While it’s important to both Winfried and us audience members that Ines break free from the binds of being a corporate shill and start incorporating more warmth and feeling into her life, Winfried’s way of helping her sometimes seems more destructive than positive. What follows from this is a push and pull between an uptight working woman and an aging hippy, with the unsuspecting social and professional circle of the working woman watching with bemusement. There’s almost always tension because we don’t know what’s going to topple over first, the network of connections Ines has built as the foundation of her entire livelihood or the last connection she has with her father. On the other hand, we never know how far Winfried is willing to take his stunts. In the end, we don’t know who deserves to win this proverbial battle.
Simonischeck has a slow and lumbering gait but a delicate and quaint sense of humor that makes the character of Winfried both powerful as a personality and fragile as a man. Sandra Hüller gives a tightly wound, restrained performance, but communicates a weariness and anxiety through her eyes. Marvelous tension is created through this matching of styles, and with a running time of over two hours, a lot relies on their alternative growth and stagnation. The story is told through curt conversations and the subtle but telling looks they give each other.
Punctuating these sequences are some explosively dramatic moments, the most memorable being a scene in which a rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Huston is sung passionately by Ines, when Winfried essentially forces her to during a social gathering. This scene wonderfully encapsulates much of the drama this movie is made of: alternating goofiness, anger, and inescapable situations. In that sense, writer-director Maren Ade turns the concept of situational comedy on its head, incorporating both natural silliness and unavoidable anxiety into some truly dynamic dramedy set-pieces. | Nic Champion