Review: "Toni Erdmann" is a drama with moments of comedy

The father-daughter story works because of its excess, not in spite of it.



Toni Erdmann
is a hot property. The marathon tale of the strained relationship between a woman and her father is a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. Whether it wins or loses, it will be remembered, in part because the celebrated feature by German writer-director Maren Ade is going to be remade in English by Americans. According to reports, Jack Nicholson will come out of semi-retirement to co-star with Kristen Wiig.

If you're wondering why I'm talking about award nominations and Hollywood remakes, it's to capture your interest enough that you'll keep reading even when I tell you that … no, too soon. Best to entice you a little more. Do you like movies with naked people? So do I, and Toni Erdmann has some major league nudity. Both sexes, and they show everything! Wonder if the American remake will have the nerve to do that? There's a scene involving sex, power, and pastries that could forever change the way you look at sweets.

OK, time to ease you into the movie details, starting with a fun fact. Remember the great comedian-performance artist Andy Kaufman? One of his characters – the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton – inspired the title character of this movie. Ade's father was a prankster who would don a set of ugly false teeth when he needed to talk with his family about something serious. Ade's Toni Erdmann is a combination of the Kaufman character and her father.

But wait, wasn't Tony Clifton so obnoxious that Kaufman's insistence on appearing as him (he claimed Clifton was real) cost him fans and several jobs? Yes, and welcome to the potentially off-putting details about the film.

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) likes to play pranks. The film opens with him making a delivery-man think he might be making mail bombs. Funny? No, and that's the core of Toni Erdmann. Winfried is visited at his small-town German home by his daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), an intense corporate type working for an outsourcing company. Ines attention remains more on her work than her father, prompting Dad to take action.

When she returns to Bucharest, her father follows. Donning a fright wig and Austin Powers-ish false teeth, he starts popping up in front of her in professional settings, claiming to be a life coach named Toni Erdmann.

He's not funny, he's embarrassing and annoying. Ines should have confronted him, scolded him and banished him until he agreed to act like an adult and respect her boundaries. She squawks at him, but not fiercely enough to dissuade him and that's why the film works. The man that mortifies his daughter represents that father of the writer-director. She loves her dad, so Ines loves her dad enough that she can't evict him from her life.

How do our parents, the people that love us so much, become such boobs sometimes? How do we grow older and behave the same way with our children? It appears that aging into gooniness is written into our DNA.

Toni Erdmann has been dubbed a comedy by many, which is misleading. It's a drama with moments of comedy. It plays like a continuation of the original British version of The Office. A hard R-rated version. The film is packed with squirm-inducing moments. Some of it is howlingly funny. Some of it is just painful.

Do you like binge-watching TV series? Sitting down for three or four hours to watch a show is considered a treat. Bear that in mind when I inform you that Toni Erdmann is two hours and 42 minutes long. Tell yourself, “I'm not watching a subtitled movie for almost three hours, I'm binge-watching a daring new feature.”

I was dreading the screening of this movie. I don't like pranks and I prefer my cringe comedy in small doses. But Toni Erdmann won me over. I hated watching Dad skulking about like a maniacal caveman in that idiotic wig and false teeth, but I'm supposed to hate the persona, and Maren Ade presents the ludicrous goings-on in such a matter-of-fact fashion that she pulled me in. The lead actors are impeccable, but so are the supporting players. Watch everybody, not just the father and daughter.

The bottom line is that Toni Erdmann works because of its excess, not in spite of it. Don't wait for the Hollywood version, see the original.


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