“Toni Erdmann” Plays the Long Game and Wins

[This review was also posted on Film Festival Today]

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

At 162 minutes, German director Maren Ade’s latest film, Toni Erdmann – her first since the 2009 Everything Else – seems like a lot to handle in a single viewing. A dramedy about an estranged father/daughter pair, the movie takes a while to engage, although the hints are there, early on, that it will become a beautiful expression of cinematic art. Slowly, through the poignancy of its writing and brilliance of its two leads, Toni Erdmann wins you over, worming its way into your mind and heart both, in equal measure. It also features one of the best nude scenes ever – completely justified by the plot, and screamingly funny – for which you must wait until the last 30 minutes. It’s well worth it, as is the entire movie.

We start with a joke. Winfried, a sixtyish bear of a man, amiably greets the hapless postal worker who rings his bell, then runs off and returns with a set of false teeth and a ridiculous disguise, pretending to be that first person’s twin brother, who just happens to be a radical bomber. The mailman can clearly see that it’s the same person, teeth and all – as can we – yet he (mostly) goes along with the gag, since Winfried has such an obvious need to entertain. Living on his own with an elderly dog, Winfried is clearly lonely, though not without some friends, family and colleagues. He’s a lot to take, however, like an overgrown child – an eternal trickster – who has never quite figured out how to operate in the real world. It’s no wonder that he teaches music and theater at an elementary school. There, he fits right in … with the students, that is.

His only daughter, Ines, is the exact opposite of papa. Where he is chaos, she is order; in fact, she’s a rising corporate consultant, stationed in Romania, a country ripe for exploitation by foreign agents. We first meet her at a party thrown in her honor at her mother’s – Winfried’s ex-wife’s – place. She seems like a cliché, always on her cell phone. It’s unclear how she and Winfried could belong to the same gene pool, yet as the movie progresses, we will see connections between father and daughter that are hard to imagine, early on.

And that is the real strength of the film, along with the two powerful central performances, from Peter Simonischek (Oktober November), as Winfried, and Sandra Hüller (Amour fou), as Ines. We think we know what kind of a story we’re watching, yet it constantly shifts gears, full of twists and surprises. The name Toni Erdmann comes from an alter ego that Winfried adopts (once again using those teeth!) when he pays Ines a visit in Romania. She’s not too happy to see her father when he shows up unannounced, and even less happy with the teeth, but he has an inescapable charm, and grows on her through prolonged exposure. Just as this movie grows on the audience (and on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which just nominated it for an Oscar). Yes, it could be a bit shorter, but it’s delightful as is.

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