THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
As far as 160-minute German comedies go, Toni Erdmann is really good. Which is to say, it's terrific. Written and directed by Maren Ade, the film is funny and insightful, outrageous but still grounded. The expression "You've never seen anything like it" is a cliché, but you really haven't seen anything quite like this one. It's a total original. It's also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film.
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried Condradi, a divorced music teacher who enjoys putting on costumes to mess with delivery men. Such antics provide him with some much-needed amusement. After the death of his beloved dog, he decides to get closer to his estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). She's in Bucharest, working as a business consultant and advising an oil company in how to outsource some of its jobs. Ines isn't entirely happy to see her father when he arrives in the country. Realizing that she's rejecting him, Winfried pops in some fake teeth and dons a wig to create the persona of “Toni Erdmann.” Toni begins inserting himself into Ines's work, chatting up her colleagues and employers. At first annoyed by the ruse, Ines slowly begins to warm up to her father's alter ego.
If that premise sounds a little kooky, it is, and Ade isn't afraid to take it to extremes. Early scenes are infused with sly humor, as Ines struggles to avoid lashing out at Winfried for fear of how she'll be received should anyone figure out Toni's real identity. Later scenes go to more outlandish extremes. Rather than having some lightbulb-over-the-head epiphany, Ines finds herself gradually coming to accept what Winfried is trying to do. While attending a party, father and daughter launch into a spontaneous, weirdly heartfelt, and semi-atonal rendition of Whitney Houston's “The Greatest Love of All.” We laugh at the cheesiness of their performance, yet also recognize that Ines is connecting to her father in a crucial way.
Things get crazier from there. Winfried's influence becomes apparent when the normally stuffy Ines hosts a work get-together that hysterically evolves into the most embarrassing, awkward professional function imaginable. Not long afterward, Winfried dresses up like a Sasquatch in an effort to drive home his desire to bond with his daughter.
Toni Erdmann is not a broad comedy, although it probably sounds that way. Yes, wild things happen with regularity, but Ade plays it all extremely straight. Winfried enjoys being nutty, and Ines understands that about him, even though she doesn't like it. With those rules established, the film creates a series of situations where father wears down daughter with increasingly crazy stunts designed to show the seriousness of his purpose. The contrast between the emotional desperateness of his behavior and the nuttiness of it is what makes the movie funny.
Underneath the laughter is an uncommonly poignant story about family members who want to get closer but don't know how. By asking Ines to accept Toni, Winfried is really asking her to accept him, despite his faults. Traditional efforts have failed, so he embraces the thing she dislikes about him most. Only by stripping himself bare in this manner is he able to demonstrate how much he needs her in his life. While two hours and forty minutes may seem long, Toni Erdmann never feels like it's dragging. The length is necessary to allow you to settle into this bizarre family dynamic and appreciate how it changes.
Peter Simonischek is outstanding as Winfried/Toni. Rather than overplaying the character's eccentricities, he makes them feel very human. Winfried isn't just a joker, he's a man whose humor is his way of testing other people. If they don't find him funny, he can simply write them off as folks who don't get the joke. Sandra Huller, meanwhile, wonderfully shows how Ines's iciness toward her father melts, at times against her better judgment. The two actors work together to create a touchingly oddball relationship.
Toni Erdmann is one of those movies that stays with you long after you see it. This is such a bold, confident piece of filmmaking that it's not easily shaken off. Nor should it be. Hollywood regularly cranks out movies about dysfunctional families learning to love each other. This outside-the-mainstream picture bests most of them.
( 1/2 out of four)
Toni Erdmann is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 42 minutes.
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