AFI Fest Review: ‘TONI ERDMANN’ – Oh Father

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

TONI ERDMANN | 2h 42min |R
Directed by: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter SimonischekSandra HüllerMichael Wittenborn, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Trystan Pütter, Thomas Loibl

“I started a joke which started the whole world crying”

What do jizz-covered petit fours, a kukeri, a naked birthday brunch and Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” have in common? Director Maren Ade’s TONI ERDMANN, of course. Not only is this the most bonkers movie you’ve seen this year, this almost three-hour German comedy doubles as the most bonkers movie that will probably make you cry. Never predictable and always genuine, Ade brilliantly captures what it’s like to be the frustrated daughter of a loving-but-inappropriate father – I know, because I am one of those daughters.

Winfried (German James Brolin Peter Simonischeck) and his workaholic daughter Ines (German Amy Ryan Sandra Hüller) haven’t been on the best of terms. Years of separation and different ideologies have put a wedge between them. However, the death of Winfried’s beloved dog Willi becomes the catalyst towards father-daughter reconciliation. Winfried shows up at Ines’ job in Bucharest for an impromptu month-long visit, but things go south fast when he fails to live up to her too-high expectations. Seeing how stressed out Ines is and realizing he’s got nothing waiting for him back in Germany, Winfried stays, reinventing himself as the floppy-haired, buck-toothed “Toni Erdmann: Ambassador Life Coach.” Hijinks, hilarity and healing ensue.

Sandra Hüller in TONI ERDMANN. Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics,

Sandra Hüller in TONI ERDMANN. Courtesy of Sony Picture Classics,

Positioning the father-daughter dynamic at the forefront is what makes this narrative successful and authentic – as much as it can be, given this is a movie. Humor is clearly Winfried’s coping mechanism. The only way Ines semi-tolerates him is when he’s committed to the bit as his alter-ego. The inherent comedy of the unraveling situations arises time and time again – whether that be when Ines plays along with her father’s ribaldry at the restaurant with her friends Tatjana (Hadewych Minis) and Steph (Lucy Russell), or the chicanery involved pre-gaming before the nightclub, or when she unloads on him on the rooftop at her work. Winfried/ Toni’s prop teeth popping in and out of his mouth is an epically small gesture that speaks volumes. When and where he does this is precisely important. Ade’s ability to switch from the uproarious (the naked brunch) to the sublimely satisfying (the pursuit in the park) should be heralded.

Ade is never judgmental of her characters. They are far from screenwriter constructs or one-dimensional archetypes, and we see all sides to their broad-spectrum humanity. The comedy isn’t primarily about being a send-up or completely uproarious – it’s about being organic. Her ruminations on the father-daughter dynamic are incredibly thoughtful and profound. Winfried/ Toni’s irreverent actions are both detrimental to Ines’ work and helpful for her sanity – and are never falsely romanticized on either side of the spectrum. And they both learn something out of this – but not in the trite, American-sitcommy kind of way. He learns that there doesn’t always need to be a punchline. And she learns to value her father’s off kilter humor when situations get too swelled with gushy emotion. Also, her need to exact control is seen in her cold romance with co-worker Tim (Trystan Pütter).

Yes, there’s at least twenty minutes that could stand to be excised from this – especially anything dealing with the minutiae of her business dealings. We get that her client Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) is undermining her skills by assigning her to take his wife shopping, and that her boss Gerald (Thomas Loibl) is undervaluing her performance. The symbolism of the cheese grater is obvious (he grates on her nerves), but it also feels like there might be more to it that gets lost in translation. The scene where Toni uses the Romanian guy’s toilet is redundant fodder for Ines to chastise her father. That said, it’s easy to forgive these blights as the journey is worth stepping in a few potholes.

TONI ERDMANN plays AFI Fest on November 12 & 15. It opens in NY and LA on December 25 with a slow roll out to follow.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.