Toni Erdmann feels like a Dad joke drawn out to absurdity for nearly three hours. Both the film’s and its titular character’s humor thrives on awkwardness and embarrassment, eliciting more cringes and groans than actual laughs. Toni is a character created by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a practical joker who seems to take little in life very seriously. With his fake teeth stowed in his shirt pocket and a variety of wigs and other gags on hand, Winfried has placed his identity in being the court jester in all aspects of life, a role which puts a strain on his relationship with his business-minded daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). As a corporate consultant for oil companies, Ines is diligent and hard-working, but the film remarkably doesn’t turn Winfried or Ines into tropes. Winfried is not quite the harlequin or “holy fool,” and neither does Ines fit the mold of the business-driven feminist who just needs to lighten up a little. There’s more going on under the surface for each character, and more the film tries to explore in their relationship, even though it never fully succeeds. Toni Erdmann is funny, but it’s also sad, even heartbreaking at times.
When Winfried notices his daughter’s workaholic tendencies at a birthday celebration, he decides to show up to her work in Bucharest unannounced in order to liven things up, perhaps bringing a smile to her face with his hideous false teeth. The plan doesn’t so much backfire as linger; Winfriend keeps coming back around, showing up in Ines’ work and social contexts, pretending he is Toni Erdmann, the absurd life coach for one of Ines’ clients. Filmmaker Maren Ade also lingers, drawing what could have been a 90-minute conventional comedy into 2 hours and 42 minutes of awkward character study and interactions. Perhaps it was the context–I watched it alone in a theater at a fairly late showing–but this didn’t elicit the guffaws I’ve heard about from Cannes and elsewhere. I can appreciate Ade’s daring and ambitious venture, but it often doesn’t feel daring enough, both formally and with the humor. Winfried’s pranks are quite repetitive, and he’s not a dramatist or lovable clown–this isn’t a Robin Williams performance. Winfried is the sort of person who would elicit pity for us in real life, even contempt. It’s interesting that one supporting character notes that Toni is not, in fact, a German ambassador from the embassy–she knew all along about his goofy scheme and could see through his terrible wig. She simply went along with his joke, maybe out of compassion or sympathy. Ines also learns how to go along with her dad, despite also being genuinely frustrated by his pranks. When they do share a few key moments of tenderness, it’s almost worth the prolonged and uncomfortable journey it took to get there.
I’m reminded of one of the Proverbs, that book of wisdom literature which uses poetic flourishes and vivid imagery to convey its sagacity: “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!'” Toni Erdmann takes a long look at such a maniac, but there’s not much of a character or story arc to speak of. Neither Winfried or Ines are dramatically changed by the finale; they understand each other a bit better, but that doesn’t necessarily deepen their relationship nor change their circumstances or outlook. This also has one of those scenes where the film could/should have ended about 15 minutes sooner at a key moment of catharsis, but instead chooses to continue to dawdle in the uncomfortable end of the cinematic pool. If you’re a fan of dry, socially awkward humor and two extended scenes of overt sexual/nudity jokes, then perhaps you’ll be entertained by Toni Erdmann. Much like an uncomfortable and drawn-out dinner with offensive members of one’s extended family, I can (somewhat) appreciate it for what it is, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it.
Caution: Toni Erdmann features a few scenes with explicit nudity and sexual content, all intended for laughs, but which end up being mostly unpleasant.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4048272/