Tell me if you’ve heard this one: an uptight business woman focusses solely on her career to the detriment of her personal life. Even at social and family functions, she is on her phone, putting out fires, arranging meetings. Cool and steely, she wears ‘professionalism’ as an armour with nary a chink in sight. Sound familiar? Given this setup, might you expect that a rogue element will come to sabotage her focus and inject some good-natured humour into her life?
Welcome to Toni Erdmann, by Maren Ade—a filmmaker whose previous films have not lingered in my mind. Here, Ines is the business woman and her free-spirit father, Winfried Conradi, the saboteur. Concerned by Ines’s workaholic habits (’cause you know how uptight career women are!), Conradi arrives, unannounced, at her company’s building in Bucharest. Not only unannounced, but wearing sunglasses and fake teeth. She ignores this breech of decorum, but sends her assistant out for reconnaissance. After a couple days trying to reconnect, including an awkward evening with Ines’s boss, Ines and Conradi have failed to find common ground, so he agrees to leave.
Except, instead of leaving, he decides to stalk her instead. As Ines dines at a swanky restaurant with some friends, Conradi suddenly appears, wearing a wig and those damn fake teeth again. He introduces himself as Toni Erdmann (!), a worldly man with intimate connections to the bigwigs in Bucharest. Throughout the rest of the movie, Conradi subjects Ines to more disguises and frivolous situations, desperately trying to worm himself between her and her pathetic, alienating lifestyle. It culminates in a rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ that almost made my ears bleed.
In the end, the whole affair plays like a straight-faced Dogme remake of a 1990s Robin Williams vehicle. This is all the more disappointing, as on the surface, Toni Erdmann does everything right. It slowly establishes the characters, giving careful insight into their backgrounds and motivations—a critic’s wet dream! Unfortunately, under Ade’s unsteady hand, this clarifying information actually serves to make the situations even more unbelievable and ridiculous. Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic to both Ines and Conradi if I hadn’t had so much information about them. Hence, with every tidbit of backstory, Ade shoots herself in the foot.
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller both deliver modulated (if thin) performances, which it why it’s so frustrating when the screenplay keeps pushing and prodding them into situations that don’t suit them. Consider this scene late in the film: Ines is supposed to be hosting a business lunch tangentially honouring her birthday. When she can’t zip her dress properly, she just answers the door naked, telling her boss and colleagues that they should all be nude as a ‘team-building exercise.’ Look: the apple falls close to the tree! The entire sequence lands with a huge thud: ridiculous but not funny, and unconvincing considering Ines’s character up to that point. The icing on the cake is Conradi, again crashing the party, this time as—hell, I dunno, Cousin Itt, maybe. [EDIT: I’m told it’s a Kuker, which Ade doubtlessly thought was symbolically quite clever, but isn’t.]
Honestly, Toni Erdmann subtly derails after the first time that Ines doesn’t tell Conradi to get the fuck out of Bucharest. Perhaps these attempts at tonal shifts would have worked in the hands of a more capable director. But Ade is frustratingly workmanlike: everything is lightly-handheld, medium two- and three-shots. It occasionally reminded me of White God, another film that attempted the ridiculous with a flatly naturalistic style, to diminishing returns (and baffling plaudits). A heightened style would have elevated the material.
That Toni Erdmann has made the Academy’s shortlist for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination is no surprise, I guess. Like A Man Called Ove, it has the right sort of message, is simple in theme and execution, and is relatively undemanding—although, its indefensibly protracted running time curtails any remaining goodwill. A minor effort from a minor director.