Dec 27, 2016
A curious and original story from Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is a well-rounded comedy of opposites. A creative, jocular father and his square, corporate daughter face off in a battle of wills that escalates at absurdum.
The movie is anchored by a truthful and phenomenal performance by Sandra Hüller, in the role of Ines, a young German consultant working in Bucharest, who is driven in her pursuit of business deals. She is very good at what she does and has to deal with the soul-crushing, generic corporate culture, which includes casual if aggressive sexism, tiresome, absurdist groupthink and futile passive-aggressive power plays between international employees. The Germans hire an American or English consultancy to work with the Rumanians, which as the movie points out, boast of the biggest mall in Europe where no one has any money to buy anything.
Ade skewers this world perfectly, capturing precisely the genericness of the people, their business lingo peppered with Orwellian English phrases like "team-building", their blind obedience to corporate culture. It deserves her thorough thrashing.
Ines' father, Winfried, aka Toni, (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in an elementary school, is sadly and suddenly in possession of time off, so he decides to show up unannounced in Bucharest. The family dynamics are strained. Just like children of authoritarians may become hippies and anarchists, sometimes children of free spirits are the squarest people, because the apples need to fall as far from the tree as possible. Through her difficulty at connecting with her dad, one can imagine what it must have been like for Ines to grow up with a prankster father, an unambitious dreamer.
Her mother has remarried and seems to be happy with a whole new, normal family. Perhaps it's droll having a clown for a dad the first few years and then it gets tiresome.
The plot of this movie hinges upon Winfried articulating an apparently innocuous question that Ines finds deeply offensive: "Are you happy?"
He likes to gently prank people with the aid of fake teeth and a terrible wig. Ines tries to take it in stride and with dignity, but he keeps surprising her and embarrassing her in public, bent on making her lose her steely composure. And here is where, even if there are a couple of strong, great twists, I parted company with the movie. The guy is just not that funny. His humor is leaden. He is like a giant baby, too dim to understand the rules of his daughter's world. Perhaps this is on purpose, but at over two hours and a half, my patience with his daughter's patience wore thin. Ade strains to find situations in which Winfried has to be involved, for instance, at a visit to an oil field, where Ines could have easily commanded him to stay in the car. There's a lot of forced slapstick, which is a peculiar brand of awkward humor. Some people at my screening were laughing hysterically. Out of me, this movie got plenty of wry smiles but only a few laughs.
But then, as I was losing faith in the movie, Ade escalates it to a daring level of absurdity. Emotionally, it makes sense: Ines is perhaps made of the same cloth as Winfried, as much as she resists accepting it, and being fiercely competitive, even with herself, she truly ups the ante, playing a major prank on her colleagues, literally revealing them in all their corporate absurdity. In the end, for all her resistance, Winfried/Toni has made a dent on Ines. A lovely, moving scene of reconciliation is touchingly poetic.
The movie is funniest when Ines tries to keep everything under control. In the best scene in the movie, she sings a very apropos Whitney Houston song in front of a roomful of strangers. She is nothing if not bent on performing stellarly. Hüller is truly the reason this movie works. And the well-observed details about the travails of working people in a globalized world make it more than just a light comedy. If only the humor were not so heavy-handed.