'Toni Erdmann' Is One Of The Funniest And Best Films Of The Year
The first truly unexpected gag in Toni Erdmann, a lengthy Germany comedy that joyously flies by, comes an hour into film with a riff on a famous Arrested Development joke. The gag itself is quite ridiculous, but the revelation is how writer-director Maren Ade has prepared us for this moment.
We have already met our protagonist Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an aging German schoolteacher who has a knack for harmless gags that seem to amuse him more than those around him. He yearns to reconnect with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a pantsuit-wearing and strained-faced consultant in Bucharest completing an outsourcing deal for a Romanian oil company. Winfried has come to Bucharest as both a pest but a possible asset for Ines, and we have seen Ines's own pressures as a woman in a male-dominated business. When she opens up to her friends about "the worst weekend of her entire life," one wonders if this actually reflects on her own feelings or if she's just playing it up for her friends. All we know is with one hilariously awkward gesture, a new man—Winfried's titular alter-ego—disrupts her life with the hopes to fix it.
So much of Toni Erdmann is a duel of wits between a father and daughter, played out on the edge between hardened realism and sublime screwball. Ade rarely frames with overt expressionism nor precise visual cues, but she remains keenly aware of how her performers work in spaces (in one interview, she noted she only wrote scenes in her screenplay after finding the location). No person violently reacts to the presence of the buffoonish eponymous character who enters Ines's life, but their glances from the background suggest the nervous condition of the so-called life coach, who sports unkempt hair and oversized teeth while wearing a knock-off suit. But somehow, even in a high-powered business situation, no one questions him—even when he turns down cocaine to grate cheese on his head.
At first glance, the narrative of Toni Erdmann comes off as meandering, going from location to location with Ines and Toni without a particular trajectory, while its standout moments (including a Whitney Houston ballad and a naked party) seemingly appear as blissful and beguiling disruptions. On second glance, the expansiveness gives way to the psychological duel at the center of the film, and the various gags by both become personal and tragically cruel. A strange diversion to an oil field outside Bucharest tugs at Winfried's bleeding liberal heartstrings, which Ines subjects on him as a most unusual punishment. And more importantly, Ines's decision to turn a professional gathering into a fiasco we realize is a totality of both her own frustrations and maybe just a bit taking of her father's lessons to heart. Ade has left nothing to chance while making everything feel spontaneous—she's made Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game for a new age and a new generation. None of this ebullience would be possible without the participation of Hüller and Simonischek, two performers who enact such a comic realism while always remaining at least flat on one foot.
Like Renoir, Ade makes no direct critique of the world her characters inhabit, but the tensions between Old and New Europe linger in an understated manner. When Ines takes a client's Russian wife to a mall, she jokes, "It's the biggest mall in Europe and no one can afford anything in it" (except them). But just out of sight, Ade peeks at the desolate Iron Curtain-era concrete apartment blocks and the strange class tensions developing in the name of globalism. Ade refrains from making this a critique—she seems wholly sympathetic to Ines (not to mention her poor assistant's) plight in attempting to create new opportunity as well as her own happy life. But as the unassuming Winfried says to a man whose land is about to be devastated, "Don't lose the humor," is it naiveté or pragmatism? Ade makes no assumption.
Neither Winfried nor Ines change by the end, but they do share a moment of parental bliss—an adolescent-like dance that reminds each party to actually recognize one another. The beauty in Ade's work is that she has constructed something so familiar in a genre often seen as overused or tired. But most films take a journey to realize the complexity of their characters; Toni Erdmann assumes it from the start. It makes just as much sense for the film to end 40 minutes in, 90 minutes, or even 150 minutes. But going the full 165 creates a euphoric experience of cinematic bliss.
Toni Erdmann opens in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day. Click here for more information on future dates.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.