Awash in humor yet punctuated with pathos, German writer/director Maren Ade’s latest and third film, Toni Erdmann is a pièce de résistance. On the surface this conquering comedy may feel a little garden-variety as we meet one Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorcé and retired music teacher who, following the death of his dear little dog, Willi, decides to visit his estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller).
Ines is a workaholic corporate hot shot living in Bucharest and her dad, an aging bohemian, has always had a fondness for elaborate practical jokes. Will he bring a holy mess to his daughter’s world? Will his spontaneous visit strengthen or exhaust their already attenuated bond?
Ade is a filmmaker of considerable intelligence and frequently in Toni Erdmann, when you think you recognize some of the narrative, she finds abrupt instants of audience blindsiding––a screaming sucker-punch impossible to see coming––and it’s an absolute joy to behold.
Winfried, donning a bad wig and false teeth creates the ambitious persona: ‘Toni Erdmann’, life coach. At the risk of great shame Ines ends up going along with the charade, too, but Mrs. Doubtfire this isn’t, and Ade’s anatomical flair, and love of the long take are great strengths, perhaps only matched by Hüller’s and Simonischek’s unerring comic timing.
They can pull of a poker-face like nobody’s business, with performances so understated yet naturalistic they both take turns stealing the show––though Hüller really does bring the house down when she belts out Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”.
Toni Erdmann clocks in at 162 minutes, very close to the 3 hour mark, but it never feels overlong or overdone because it has a lot on its mind. Ines exhausting and demanding job is emblematic of women in the workforce writ large, and Ade’s many pointed barbs at corporate culture makes for studious social satire with a thirst-quenching feminist tilt to it.
And for added plaudits Toni Erdmann winds down at a birthday party that brazenly twists into the territory of Luis Buñuel with a surrealist sting pitting Eros and civilization at one another in a parade of nudity and an avant-garde one upmanship from Toni/Winfried. It’s an unregimented riot.
Ade is a shrewd genius of a director and Toni Erdmann is a cantankerous comedy of modern life’s illogicality. Proportionately disarming and charming this is also perhaps the most ambitious film of the year, and for all of Toni’s high jinks and horseplay, the joke’s on you if you miss it.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.