TONI ERDMANN. I pride myself on an appreciation of bizarre cinema, from camp to cult to psychedelic to oddball. It's not that I'm steely — plenty of genre films leave me unnerved or nonplussed. I cannot claim to understand Mulholland Drive or have particularly liked Holy Motors; nor are the charms of a blockbuster or crowd pleaser lost on me. But I relish movies that do new things, that challenge audiences or go in unexpected directions.
The last thing I expected out of Toni Erdmann, a well-received German comedy/drama, was to walk out of the theater shell-shocked. There's not an ounce of gore and aside from one scene it barely registered as an R-movie. It's not even an outlandish film but the relentless grind of cringiness, punctuated by genuine poignancy and peculiar moments left me with a lot to unpack over my post-movie beer.
Toni Erdmann is challenging and unexpected, and while not an utter delight, puts together enough touching, laugh-out-loud and memorable moments to be, well, unforgettable.
It opens with Winfried (Peter Simonischek) — overweight, shabbily dressed, unshaven with long, shaggy gray hair hanging in his eyes — pulling a small but elaborate prank on a delivery man. It's clear that Winfried has an active imagination and a general indifference to decorum or humiliation. He favors irreverent songs and a janky set of false teeth, which his few friends and family members seem to politely tolerate. Winfried lives a small life with his old blind dog Willi in a German suburb, teaching piano to kids, visiting his aging mother and stopping by his ex-wife's house — in zombie face makeup — when his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) visits.
Ines is overworked and underappreciated. On holiday from her headquarters in Bucharest, she spends most of her visit home fielding work phone calls. She and her father part having shared few words, back to their respective lifestyles. Shortly thereafter, Willi dies, kicking off a shaggy dog story with a shaggy dad — Winfried — at the center.
Winfried decides to surprise Ines in Bucharest. He waits for hours in the lobby of her highrise office but when she walks by in a scrum of businessmen, she ignores him, only sending her assistant down afterward to catch him.
Ines works for a firm consulting with a Romanian oil giant, the CEO of which may or may not want to outsource a portion of his labor. The weekend Winfried arrives, Ines is knee-deep in shit. The CEO is in town, and she has to juggle her ambitious plan to get his ear, entertain his wife and keep her prank-prone father occupied.
Winfried's lackadaisical attitude doesn't jive with Ines. This, unsurprisingly, leads to a series of uncomfortable situations and increasingly tense fights between daughter and father. Eventually, having gotten a taste of her unnervingly busy and goal-oriented life, Winfried packs his bags and heads home, only to reappear in a cheap, gaudy suit, false teeth and a cast-off Gene Simmons wig. He has become Toni Erdmann, a consultant to billionaire Romanian businessmen. Under this guise, he mounts a campaign to insert himself into Ines' life.
This is when things get weird. Ines tries a variety of tactics as Toni Erdmann shows up at social functions and her workplace.
She fights back in her way — ignoring him, then pleading with him, shocking him. But Toni — er, Winfried — doesn't relent. Did he have a mental break? Is it possible for him to get out of his character? His pranks begin to become more and more threatening to Ines' career, among others. There's a moment when he seems to realize his pranks can have adverse effects on people's lives but he continues to push, perhaps unaware of how to connect with his daughter in any other way.
As Ines is pressed more and more by her father and her work, cracks begin to show in larger and larger bouts of spontaneity. It's unclear if those are hand-me-downs from her father — whether nature or nurture — and it's equally unclear if they're symptoms of an impending breakdown or awakening. It culminates in one of cinema's most awkward party scenes.
At nearly three hours, Toni Erdmann never drags, and it contains a surprisingly complex set of issues, highlighting Ines' secondary status as a woman in the upper echelons of business and the stark disparity of wealth in Romania. It also has some poignant messages about the relationships parents have with their children, about the different worlds they occupy and how they try to close — or maintain — the distance between them.
Toni Erdmann's awkwardness accounts for much of its buzz. I'm not particularly familiar with German cinema but if writer-director Maren Ade was trying to break Britain's monopoly on cringe humor, she's succeeded. The cinema verite style, coupled with Hüller's remarkable performance, serves to heighten the discomfort of the whole experience. Rather than being framed as something to laugh at — like the awkward, comic nudity of Forgetting Sarah Marshall — Ade's direction places the audience right there in the scene, breathing in every molecule of embarrassment. Ultimately, it's suitably ambiguous — comfort and dignity be damned. R. 162m. MINOR (through April 13).
— Grant Scott-Goforth
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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