Film Review: Toni Erdmann

An uproarious feminist comedy with tears and sneers, the continually surprising 'Toni Erdmann' is a fascinating beast with a father-daughter story at its heart that is at once familiar and like nothing you've ever seen before.
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Is Toni Erdmann a comedy? The sheer volume of uproarious laughs this contemporary father-daughter story ultimately produces certainly suggests that it is. But if so, it might bizarrely be one of the saddest and prickliest comedies ever made. A surprising jaw-dropper that renews itself at every turn, German writer-director Maren Ade’s (Everyone Else) nearly three-hour magnum opus uniquely jostles polar-opposite feelings and plays with its oxymoronic construct, while finding a tone that insinuates that joy can be rooted in sadness, and that pessimism can spark unexpected, absurd mirth. Ade’s vision, so particular and startlingly measured, makes Toni Erdmann an altogether unclassifiable beast that wickedly disguises sneers and tears underneath laughs.

This deliberate attitude is fairly synonymous, or at least has parallels, with the way women often find they have to conduct themselves out in the world, whether amongst family members or at the workplace. One such woman confronted with these modern-day double standards is Ines (Sandra Hüller), the successful careerist at the heart of Ade’s unapologetically feminist film. Sure, all human beings habitually wear masks in their daily affairs to pare their real selves down to a level of social normalcy. Exposing how we truly feel or what we really want is like that universal nightmare where you’re caught in public with no clothes on. But to keep one’s genuine impulses under control is doubly hard for women like Ines, who is determined to climb the corporate ladder in an unmistakabe man’s world.

As a German professional temporarily stationed in Bucharest for a high-stakes/high-stress consultancy job, Ines’ work routine includes participating in extended conference calls, creating and conducting stressful presentations, wearing sharp pantsuits complemented by her elegantly swept-back hairdo, coaching her innocent yet ambitious assistant who wants to be just like Ines one day, and silently agonizing over her demanding position amongst her mostly male colleagues and clients she has to impress. As Toni Erdmann’s overly generous yet necessary running time progresses, we slowly discover a woman even tougher than meets the eye underneath Ines’ sturdy surface. At the same time, we peek into her fragility, too. Often visibly irritated (she barely cracks a smile in the film) but calculatedly well-mannered, Ines comes across as an increasingly treacherous ticking bomb.

What eventually ignites Ines is a semi-unexpected visit from her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek). A kind-hearted, idiosyncratic joker, he drops in on his daughter after taking her casual non-invitation seriously following the death of his loyal dog (a sad occurrence he responds to with disarming humanism that earns him a free pass for the rest of the film.) As soon as this jolly old prankster, with his fake teeth, unruly wig and unlimited supply of alter egos, shows up at the doorstep of Ines’ high-end but cookie-cutter and lifeless apartment, he sniffs out her desolation and misery. Despite being (sort of) unwelcome, he decides to stay to provide his daughter with support in the only way he knows how: by interjecting himself and his sense of humor into every aspect of her personal and professional life and nosily interfering with her various affairs.

Of course, life for the most part, especially in capitalistic societies, isn’t designed for parents to follow their children’s every move. Parents are supposed to see the highlights, feel pride when their kids succeed and gloom when they hurt, while being removed from the ins and outs of decisions that lead to those big moments. They are supposed to remain at a certain distance and “not get it,” as they don’t fight on the same battleground. In Toni Erdmann, Winfried takes it upon himself to break down that natural barrier. At the expense of embarrassing Ines (and at times, even jeopardizing her career), he shadows her around, sometimes as himself, but mostly as one of his conveniently made-up new identities: a life coach named Toni Erdmann, for instance.

As the duo run from one event to the next—with episodic-feeling segments, unhurriedly shot by Patrick Orth with austerity—we witness Ines’ unhappiness, caused not only by a capitalistic career path she plainly despises, but also the insidious institutional sexism she is subjected to on a daily basis. In one telling scene, Ade demonstrates this infuriating impediment when Ines entertains various business prospects she desperately tries to win over at a nightclub. Despite being the smartest talking head at the table, her biggest win of the night proves to be agreeing to take her prospective client’s wife out shopping, while Winfried organically becomes the man of the hour, to Ines’ extreme distaste.

But for all her eye-rolling and judgment, Ines eventually proves that the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree. She soon starts displaying traces of her dad’s comical sensibilities in her elaborate errands, business dealings and even sexual encounters (one in particular, which involves some peculiar petit-fours, is edgy and hilarious). The risky gambit of the film’s unprecedentedly climactic final hour is especially a hoot, as Ines blows off some steam with an impromptu karaoke session at a proper, conservative Easter party by launching into Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” and later on shockingly confronts her co-workers with unexpected nudity in perhaps the film’s strongest laugh-out-loud sequence. Talk about the aforementioned nudity nightmare: Ines defeats this basic human fear in the blink of an eye, while laughing at it to its face.

The real gut-punch, however, is the eventual union of Ines and Winfried on the common ground of familial understanding. Made up of the same strong stuff, shackle-free and imbued with love, these two fascinating creatures release the suppressed tears of the audience all at once, in one simple moment. I’m not quite sure how Ade pulled this off the way she did, but you will ache and cry. And you will perhaps even grab the phone to call your parent, whose words of advice you love and hate, but deeply, exclusively recognize and identify with. Isn’t that the greatest love of all?

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