The poignancy of a father-daughter relationship is hardly a new path for cinema to tread, but it has been captured with rare vim and vigor in German comedy “Toni Erdmann.”
A critical hit since its premiere at Cannes last year, “Toni Erdmann” is in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at Sunday’s Golden Globes and a frontrunner in the same category for next month’s Oscars. Success at either would be a win for unconventional comedy.
Writer and director Maren Ade has conjured one of the better fools in recent memory in Toni Erdmann, the titular character and alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a prankster father out to disrupt the life of his careerist daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller).
Listless after the death of his dog, student-less piano teacher and divorcee Winfried travels to Bucharest to surprise his daughter at the doorstep of her office. He waits three hours for her, only to be ignored as she departs with clients.
Ines’ life exists in a bubble where everyone is out to win, and she’s fighting against a thick glass ceiling on her corporate climb. “You’re an animal!” laughs Ines’ colleague after a meeting. “Are you even human?” asks her father, dismayed with her driven but evidently unsatisfying life.
Needless to say, the happy-go-lucky Winfried does not fit in. Merely tolerated by his daughter, she drags him around various networking opportunities, not realizing her irreverent and affable father is more engaging to her clients than she is.
Unable to bridge the gap in this filial relationship, Winfried departs, only to reemerge on the Bucharest corporate scene as Toni, international man of mystery, “life coach” to Ines’ boss and occasional German ambassador. Sporting a black wig, false teeth and a wonky, conspiratorial smile, he’s in his element, ingratiating himself with everyone close to his daughter while Ines, infuriated, is forced to keep schtum through her own embarrassment, lest she reveal their connection.
Stalking Ines’ life and all over her social calendar, Winfried’s fool is just the tonic required, skewering the pretensions of the suits while forcing Ines to embrace her own quashed sense of silliness.
Playing out in a succession of awkward scenarios, Ade and her editing team revel in toying with the audience, letting the camera linger until each scene ripens into cringe-inducing perfection. Things escalate of course, culminating in an impromptu rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All – a literal high note, the song’s lyrics about childhood and self-love foreshadowing the comedy’s farcical denouement.
Marrying slapstick and aching pathos, Simonischek and Huller’s performances make the ridiculous look sublime – landing laughs and tears in one-two punches, liberally and with aplomb. It’s all deeply funny and deeply sad, Toni sweetly offers some bitter truths about life, while Ade’s script provides depth without veering towards didacticism.
One gets the feeling, like the film itself, “Toni Erdmann’s” success could prove bittersweet. Hollywood’s proclivity for remakes is unabated, and awards season success might have studios wondering what they could do with a film that thus far has flown under the radar of American audiences. Admittedly, an actor like John Malkovich in Simonischek’s role would be very watchable.
It’s all hypothetical of course, but Ade’s touching film should be allowed to percolate for a while longer. Uncomfortable but nevertheless uproarious, “Toni Erdmann” may not be the comedy we asked for, but it’s the one we needed.