Winifred Conradi, one of the two central characters of Maren Ade's third feature Toni Erdmann, is a lot like the film itself: large, unpredictable, prankish, yet fundamentally sad-a complex mix of the humorous and the melancholy, both silly and the almost profound. The film's title derives from an alter ego Winifred (Peter Simonischek) concocts when visiting his overworked, corporate-climbing daughter Ines (Sandra Hller) in Bucharest, where she is trying to seal a corporate consulting gig that will result in outsourcing and significant layoffs for oil workers. With her pinched face, pressed suits, and tightly wound hair, Ines is meant to represent everything that is wrong with the corporate world, particularly its insularity, which breeds not just avarice and a lack of compassion, but also nurtures old, festering practices like misogyny. Ines is both a contributor to and victim of that world, and Winifred's brash decision to create a bizarre alter ego allows him to enter into it and observe Ines's life while explicitly undermining his her goals.
At its heart, Toni Erdmann is an old-fashioned father-daughter story grafted onto a none-too-subtle critique of the corporatization of Europe and the brutally hectic nature of modern life. Winifred, who works in Germany as a grammar-school music teacher, is the perennial outsider whose love of pranks and tricks and fun will forever keep him just outside the polite, well-mannered social order. He isn't an anarchist or a surrealist, and one gets the sense that he genuinely wants to be part of the so-called "normal" world, but it's too decisively against his nature to just go with the flow-hence, the set of novelty snaggle-teeth he keeps in his pocket at all times, which he eventually pairs with a goofy black fright wig to embody Toni Erdmann, who is either a life coach or the German ambassador to Romania, depending on the situation.
Indes is constantly mortified by her father's behavior, but for reasons that are never really explained (outside of plot necessity), she makes no effort to reveal his various ruses to her co-workers and acquaintances, instead playing along with them and allowing him to become embedded deeper and deeper into her life, which as a result begins to rapidly unravel. Ines is clearly miserable-she endures all manner of sexist control at work while struggling for advancement, she doesn't appear to have any real friends who aren't also business associates, and a sexual encounter with her Romanian lover yields no real human contact, but instead devolves into a grotesque power play. Her fundamental unhappiness like stems from the fact that she runs her life like a business, always gunning for the next opportunity and never stopping to smell the roses, as it were.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Toni Erdmann is all about, and in case you didn't get it, at the end of its two-and-a-half-hour run time, Winfried helpfully summarizes it and leaves Ines struggling to find the proper response. That note of ambiguity is a saving grace of sorts, keeping the film from ending on a note of incredible obviousness that is otherwise largely absent from its odd, rambling narrative. Ade, who both wrote and directed, is intent on keeping us on edge, and at its best Toni Erdmann is a dour comedy of excruciating embarrassment, culminating in the now infamous "naked party" sequence that finds Ines cracking and turning her birthday dinner/team-building event into a stupefying exercise in literal nakedness. It's cringe-worthy in all the best ways, as are a number of other scenes in which Winfried, who is like a hulking sad clown, upends convention with his shaggy, toothy routines.
The film has gotten glowing reviews across the board and snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and it's not hard to see why the critics appreciate its daring. Yet, for long stretches it seems to be ambling in ways that aren't always particularly interesting, and the fly-on-the-wall cinematography is neither deeply inviting or purposefully distancing; rather, it's just kind of there. As a whole, Toni Erdmann transcends its weaker moments, melding animal comedy with a deeper sense of purpose, and its balancing of otherwise radically disparate tones is certainly admirable (the performances by Simonischek and Hller are great, as is Ingrid Bisu as Ines's desperate-to-please assistant). But, one can't help but wish that Ade had made it just a little tighter; its rambling nature is part of its off-beat charm, but it's also a bit too much of a good thing.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Sony Pictures Classics
Overall Rating: (3)
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