If the German tragicomedy TONI ERDMANN were a Hollywood film, a lovable old rogue of a father would melt the heart of his career-driven hard-ass daughter with his madcap japes and joie-de-vivre. It would be like a parental version of the schmaltzy harmless banal comedy THE INTERN starring Anne Hathaway and Robert de Niro. I am pleased to report that writer-director Maren Ade has created something far funnier, far weirder and far more brutally insightful portrait of a father-daughter relationship in crisis and the desperation of using humour to communicate.
The movie stars Sandra Hueller as Ine Conradi, as a successful management consultant working on a project in Bucharest. We see her frustrated by casual misogyny at work, belligerent staff in the company she is trying to restructure, and the demands of flattering the client at all hours of the day and night in order to land a contract. This all rang hugely true of modern corporate life. Permanently exhausted and pissed off, the only moment where Ine seems to be in control of her life is when she makes demands of her workplace fuckbuddy, demanding sex on exactly her terms. Otherwise, her life is one of frustration in pursuit of a promotion that is forever one year away. Still, like most successful copers, Ine is desperate not to let any of this on to her co-workers or family, taking fake phone-calls to avoid difficult situations.
It's during a rare trip home to Germany that her father, Winfried (Peter Simonschek) catches his daughter in that lie and realises that she's in emotional trouble. But for whatever reason, their relationship isn't one where he can simply reach out to her and have an honest conversation. They barely touch, let alone hug. And so, on a whim, he decides to visit her in Bucharest, turning up at her office unannounced. He attempts to lighten her mood by playing silly practical jokes - eventually culminating in creating a character called Toni Erdmann, with bad teeth, a dodgy wig and a series of fake jobs including German Ambassador and life coach to a corporate CEO. Ine is both horrified but also complicit in Toni's act - at one point even using him to charm an intransigent worker - and ultimately meeting him head to head in his insanity in two pivotal scenes that had the London audience bursting into spontaneous applause. And what is the result of all this - well, not bonding exactly - maybe sustained provocation? Is it greater understanding of each other's lifestyle or life choices? Probably not. But there is, I think, an honest expression of love, and through that, self-confidence. From desperation to emotional growth, but without any hint of banal sentimentality or predictability.
TONI ERDMANN is a superbly, bravely acted and constructed film that pushes its characters and its viewers into uncomfortable, cringe-worthy, but often hysterically funny situations. It also makes us care about these two flawed characters and their dysfunctional relationship. And along the way, there are deep insights about what it is to be a woman in the corporate workplace. The resulting film is a tour-de-force of off-the-wall comedy and profound discomfort and all the more pleasurable watched in a crowded cinema.
TONI ERDMANN has a running time of 162 minutes. The movie played Cannes, Toronto and London 2016 and opened earlier this year in Germany, Austria, France, Luxembourg, Estonia, Hungary and Sweden. It opens in the Netherlands on November 10th, in Denmark on December 1st, in the USA on December 25th, in the UK on February 3rd, in Russia on February 23rd, and in Poland on March 10th.