Producer: Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach and Michel Merkt
Director: Maren Ade
Writer: Maren Ade
Stars: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hueller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Puetter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Ingrid Bisu, Vlad Ivanov and Victoria Cocias
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Ever since it premiered at the 2016 Cannes Festival, Maren Ade’s epic-length German comedy-drama has been rapturously received, and now it has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. There’s little doubt that “Toni Erdmann” is a phenomenon of sorts; the question is why. Overlong and—apart from a few truly bizarre moments—pretty obvious, it neither delivers consistent laughs nor carries any deep emotional impact. To this reviewer, at least, its enthusiastic reception is puzzling.
To begin, the title character isn’t a real person, but a disguise adopted by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced music teacher who lives in a German town with a very old dog named Willy. Winfried loves playing pranks, like the one he puts over on a deliveryman in the first scene, pretending to be his own brother, an ex-con with a propensity for bombs; apparently we’re intended to consider such antics endearing, but almost at once he comes across as obnoxious, even a bit creepy. That vibe continues into his visits to his elderly mother and to a party his ex-wife and her new husband are throwing for Winfried’s estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hueller), who’s briefly back in Germany from her position with a management-consulting firm in Bucharest.
Their meeting does not go well, so after his last piano student announces he’s ending his lessons and Willy dies, he decides to surprise his daughter in Romania. Surprise her he does, resulting in an excruciating weekend during which he accompanies her to a conference and some business meetings, observing how she suffers through petty humiliations and sexist treatment while she barely tolerates his unwanted efforts to reconnect. When she finally thinks she’s rid of him, Winfried returns, but as Toni, wearing false teeth and a fright wig of the sort that Jerry Lewis might have donned during his heyday.
Erdmann, as Winfried calls himself, now intrudes into Ines’ life, being accepted—none too credibly, one might add—into her business circle as some sort of renowned “life coach,” and in one instance even as the German ambassador to Romania. The implausibility of this is obvious, but if one is capable of suspending disbelief, his antics do reveal certain real issues that Ade wants to raise. One is the status of women in the business world, where, however solid their talent, they continue to be subordinated to the whims and wishes of men who still lord it over them and undervalue them in ways major and minor. Another is the callousness of the capitalist model being imposed in countries like Romania: the project that Ines’ company has been hired to implement involves outsourcing jobs in oil production, which will have a damaging impact on the local workforce. And, of course, the overarching idea is that Winfried sees that his daughter is stuck in an unhappy situation, and wants to jolt her into rebelling against it.
But these issues, important though they may be, are mired in a narrative that drags us through entirely too many episodes of Toni’s bumbling and mugging. A few sequences stand out, if not always for the right reasons, but all center on Ines. One involves an afternoon fling with a colleague in which a tray of petit fours plays a prominent role—one that wouldn’t be out of place in a raunchy, R-rated Hollywood comedy with the likes of Seth Rogen. Another is an embarrassing musical interlude in which Ines is prodded by her father to do an impromptu sing-out of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” And finally, there’s Ines’ birthday party, which turns into a nude-a-thon when she’s unable to deal with her ultra-tight-fitting dress. These moments are meant, one supposes, to point toward the young woman’s gradual liberation under her father’s none-too-gentle encouragement, but if they encourage any laughter, it’s certain to be of the strained variety.
“Toni Erdmann” does boast a strong performance by Hueller, who captures Ines’ ambivalence—her drive to succeed in business as against her lingering affection for a father who’s driving her as nuts now as he probably always did in their earlier days. But Simonischek doesn’t match her, drawing a character that’s both irritating and rather boring, and the rest of the cast is little more than functional. The picture doesn’t even look good: Patrick Orth’s cinematography is of the hand-held variety, and often seems merely slapdash.
The end result is a film that has some intriguing underlying themes, but struggles to unpack them in a story that’s neither amusing nor enlightening enough to bear the weight of a nearly three-hour running-time. Still, this is a decidedly minority opinion, and you may feel differently.