A practical joking father tries to reconnect with his hard working daughter by creating an outrageous alter ego and posing as her CEO’s life coach.
A German comedy clocking in at almost three hours isn’t generally the kind of cinema that would grab my attention, but widespread critical acclaim leading to an Oscar nomination and a place at the top of Sight & Sound Magazine’s top films of 2016 (despite only being released last week) had me curious. That acclaim is certainly not unfounded as ‘Toni Erdmann’ is a fantastic piece of work, comfortably one of the funniest films I’ve seen in some time whilst also having a lot to say for itself on a deeper, more thematic level. It concerns a father and an adult daughter who don’t see all that much of each other these days, largely on account of the daughter’s work as a business consultant in Bucharest, and the lengths the father goes too to re-establish a connection.
The father is Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric music teacher who likes playing pranks and dressing up and acting out as different ‘characters’. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), could not be more different from her father, with her work as a business consultant consuming her life, leading to an uptight nature and limited time to spend enjoying herself or seeing her family. This leads Winfried to set out to change that and he books time off work and travels to Bucharest to try to reconnect with Ines, which proves to be more challenging than he suspected. Enter Toni Erdmann, a ‘life coach’ and Winfried’s greatest disguise, who inserts himself into Ines life, whether she wants him there or not. With a lesser script or weak performances this could have came across as sleazy or tragic, but it’s testament to the strength of both that it’s endearingly brilliant and just quirky and farcical enough that it works.
The film is uproariously funny and this is largely down to the wonderful performance from Peter Simonischek, who displays expert comic timing and delivery. His deadpan delivery, comical accents and disguises, and even moments approaching slapstick as he hovers on the fringes of scenes had me, and much of the cinema, laughing hysterically. Underneath the comic exterior, he’s sad and sweet and we really empathise with his desire to reconnect with Ines, and he’s superb in the film’s more tender moments. Ines, as written, may come across as a bit of a nightmare, but the film doesn’t draw her in broad strokes and she’s just as relatable as Winfried is, albeit in different ways. I’m sure many people can relate to the pressures of work getting on top of you, and how easy it is to lose sight of what’s really important in life, and Ines is another person who’s fallen into this trap as they seek to further their career. Sandra Huller really sells her internal pain and unhappiness at the situation she finds herself in, and if the film has a message, it’s to quote ‘The Wire’, that ‘the job will not save you’. As the film plays out and explores Winfried and Ines relationship, it’s touching as she starts to appreciate his presence in her life. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is a film that cares about its characters, warts and all, and its empathetic approach to their individual troubles, flaws and quirks really endear you to them, and by extension, the film.
There’s one scene I could have done without (I’m sure you’ll know it when you come to it!) that depicts a disgusting sexual act (I don’t consider myself a prude but this made me queasy), but that’s a small criticism for a film that’s on the whole superb and really earns its lengthy running time. There’s a sequence towards the end that had me laughing harder than anything I’ve seen in recent times, certainly since Colin Farrell kicked a child in ‘The Lobster’, and the film culminates beautifully without ever seeping into overt sentimentality.
‘Toni Erdmann’ is a hilarious comedy with a lot of heart and this is a film well worth going to see. Don’t be put off by the length, or the subtitles, or the outlandish premise, and just embrace it – this is a superbly entertaining film.
Directed By: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell and Michael Wittenborn