Critically acclaimed comedies tend to attract some of the more peculiar and polarising critical reviews, in my experience.
Toni Erdmann is apparently “brilliantly funny…” according to the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times talks of moving from “…one heartfelt, hilarious scene to the next…”, whereas Screen International suggests that it is “…at times, downright hilarious…”
To be honest, none of this I agree with.
Naturally, one man’s meat is another man’s poison – as the old saying goes – with the comedy genre being perhaps the most subjective of them all. It’s also only fair to say that I’ve hand-picked the above examples purely to illustrate a point, and that the majority of reviews I’ve witnessed are not in fact anywhere near as emphatic about any sort of ‘hilarity’ at work within Toni Erdmann. But almost without exception, they are all gushing in their praise of it.
And rightly so, for Toni Erdmann is a quite simply wonderful piece of film-making. Be in no doubt about that.
Maren Ade’s film fuses a mostly subtle strand of comedy with an underlying melancholia in this absorbing tale of a disfunctional father/daughter relationship.
Ines (Sandra Hüller), is a high achiever, an employee of a ruthless consultancy firm employed to number crunch and make those big tactical decisions that ‘streamline’ big corporations, yet inevitably negatively impact upon the jobs and lives of their employees. Despite the apparent hindrance of her being a woman in a male-dominated industry, she strives hard to make an impact and to be noticed, and is considered cold and ruthless by her peers. Her current placement sees her marooned, along with her team, out in a world of business meetings, and corporate hotels, in Bucharest.
Her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a practical joker and warm-hearted soul, is cut from rather different cloth. A music teacher by profession and relatively free-spirit by nature, he is essentially content with his life, yet feels as though he has grown apart from his daughter over the years, and rarely gets the opportunity to spend any sort of meaningful time with her. With the passing of his beloved old pet dog, Willi, so too passes any real reason for him to feel anchored to his home environment anymore, and on a whim, he decides one day to take some time out and make an impromptu visit to the Romanian capital, to surprise his daughter.
To suggest that Winfried’s appearance is not entirely welcome, is to understate the point, dramatically. Initially horrified by her father impinging upon her professional life, Ines gradually mellows a little, but still considers his appearance to be far too much of a distraction from the serious business of career climbing. Ines would far rather he re-arranged his visit for a more mutually convenient time in the future, but Winfried knows his daughter, and therefore knows that this will never happen. He has other plans…
Comedy teeth in hand, and rubbish wig on head, he sets about having a little harmless fun at his daughter’s expense , deliberately missing his flight home, and instead sticking around and adopting an alter-ego, Toni Erdmann; a tactic which, considering his daughter’s serious demeanour and innate inability to see the funny side of pretty much anything, is ill-advised, to say the least.
Tiring of her father’s shenanigans, Ines comes to the gradual realisation that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ may just be the only approach effective enough to disuade Winfried from his unabating antics. With this in mind, she sets about trying to upstage him, employing until now unheard of (for her) extremes, with genuinely amusing and slightly outrageous results.
Once the preconception that Toni Erdmann is in some way a ‘veritable laugh-riot’ has been suitably vanquished from one’s mind, it can then be fully appreciated on another, far more meaningful level altogether.
Sandra Hüller is superbly Germanic in her seriousness, portraying a woman who has not only completely lost sight of the joy in life, but has forgotten how to re-ignite that spark once again. Barely a flicker of emotion is in evidence upon her face throughout the film’s lengthy 2 hours and 40 minutes duration – occasional fits of disapproving frustration and the odd tear-welling, aside. Her tunnel-visioned crusade to make a name for herself within her industry is all very commendable and understandable, yet seems entirely at the expense of embracing anything or anyone else in her life. Very much alive, but certainly not living.
Peter Simonischek’s portrayal of her father is cleverly underplayed considering the ‘class clown’ moniker with which he is labelled by those that know him, as he subtly yet insistently attempts to infiltrate the corporate bubble in which Ines is so firmly entrenched.
The interplay between the disparate pair is at times hard to watch but always convincing, and makes for a curious yet slightly tragic study of broken family relationships, with Ines unwilling – or perhaps unable? – to clutch the olive branch of reconciliation that her father frequently presents her with, through his own particular brand of comedic buffoonery.
It’s charming, it’s beautifully paced, engrossing and actually quite emotionally-draining. Despite its lengthy duration, it also never threatens to outstay its welcome. Quite the opposite, in fact, and a sign of the engagement levels that Maren Ade’s direction has been able to successfully achieve.
Hats off to that.
Far more than just a comedy, Toni Erdmann operates on an altogether deeper and very personal level, and is very much one of the highlights of the year, thus far.