Wonderfully odd and captivating, this is one of the best films of last year.
Is it worth $10? Yes!
“Oh crap! It’s one of those movies.” That’s the first thought I had mere moments after “Toni Erdmann,” Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, began. It opens with a handheld, slightly shaky, non-descript shot of a mundane house in Germany, and it stays on it for what felt like an eternity. Within seconds I had written the film off as a pretentious noodle. Thankfully, professionalism kicked in and I kept watching. Slowly, and I mean slowly because the movie is close to three hours long, the film drew me in and revealed itself to be a carefully crafted, unique, and astute “comedy.”
The quotes are on purpose. At its core, the movie is a drama. But it does have a comedic setup, scenes that are clearly designed for laughter, and at least one outrageous sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in “American Pie”; after this movie, I will never look at petit fours in the same way again. But “Toni” is much more than a simple comedy.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is divorced and slightly estranged from his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller). He’s lonely and likes to interact with people, though usually through an oddball sense of humor. After a personal shock, he makes an impulsive decision to visit Ines in Bucharest, where she works a high-pressure job. Between her stress and their differing personalities, the stay quickly becomes unpleasant and Winfried leaves. Except he doesn’t. Sensing his daughter’s unhappiness, he tries to connect with her - by playing a practical joke. To that end he adopts the persona of Toni Erdmann, a CEO life coach. Replete with a garish wig and false teeth, he begins to follow Ines around and annoy/embarrass her in a strange attempt to break through her icy exterior.
What stands out first is the weirdness. When Winfried first comes to Bucharest, he doesn’t tell Ines of his arrival. Instead, he waits in her office building and when she arrives, he simply walks next to her pretending to read a newspaper. He doesn’t speak or make eye contact. Weirder still, Ines doesn’t react. She ignores him, disappears into her office and, minutes later, sends her assistant to pick him up. She’s clearly been through this before.
While they’re both eccentric, the film doesn’t simply devolve into a collection of weird moments. It’s not weirdness for weirdness’ sake. The characters are relatable. They’re frustrating and often angry, but they also love and care for each other, they just don’t know how to express it, so it comes out in odd ways. We laugh at the eccentricity, but we don’t laugh at the people.
Director Maren Ade, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the long running time to her advantage. Beyond the central father-daughter relationship, she also makes time for commentary on what women experience in the modern work place and the disparity between classes in Romania; the new world versus the old. And it’s all done with an eye for detail and a distinct lack of preachiness. But the film’s length also gives us a better understanding of Winfried, Ines, and their complex relationship. Once that’s in place, Ade begins knocking them out of their comfort zones and shaking things up with the appearance of Toni Erdmann (which isn’t until an hour into the movie), all of which leads to a satisfying emotional arc for the characters without resorting to a pat ending.
And it’s all buoyed by phenomenal acting. Sandra Hüller especially turns out to be the film’s MVP. The movie is just as much about Ines as it is about Winfried, and Hüller brings her to life with subtle and clear detail. She doesn’t overplay her emotions but clearly conveys them at the same time. Late in the film, Winfried goads Ines into performing a song in front of a group of strangers. She paces, considers her options, tucks in her shirt and goes for it. She belts out “The Greatest Love of All,” off-key, passionately, giving herself to the moment completely. Immediately after the song ends, she snaps out of it and wordlessly stomps out of the room. It’s a complex, magnificent bit of acting that perfectly expresses her mental state without the benefit of dialogue. Her performance deserved at least an Oscar nomination.
And “Toni Erdmann” itself is one of the best pictures of last year. It’s so good, in fact, that even though my tooth’s filling fell out as I watched the movie, it still, somehow, kept my rapt attention. In the end, it left me with a grin on my face that stayed there even as wind began whistling through my teeth.