And then she sings Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All. In German writer-director Maren Ade’s tragicomedy Toni Erdmann, the unexpected is always waiting in the next scene or looming at the edge of the frame. Even when hooked to see it after the the highly amusing trailer, which seemed to offer a charming but light affair, I was surprised at how soon the actual film dispensed of that impression. Instead, Ade strikes a deeper chord without embellishing excessively her meditation on the regrets and disappointments between children and their parents. While there is a delightful anarchic energy to Toni Erdmann, there is is also an unspoken but pervasive hurt that throbs just beneath the playful surface. It is a bewildering, uproarious but emotionally resonant film, somehow capable of injecting a 1980s R&B song inexplicably into the farce in such a way that it is both hilarious and heart-felt.
The death of a beloved, but blind dog aptly sets the absurd and endearing tone and the proceedings into action. Its eccentric but well-meaning owner, Winfred (Peter Simonischek) decides this is the moment to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest without invitation or warning. Discovering unwittingly that her ‘everything’s fine’ mantra on rare home visits has barely masked a highly stressed and deeply unsatisfying existence bound unhealthily to her work, Winfried approaches the situation as only he knows how: to don a false pair of crooked teeth and a ridiculous bushy brown wig to become the bizarre, satirical ‘Toni Erdmann’ – consultant, life-coach and ‘German ambassador’ reminiscent of Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson (though far less lecherous). Turning up amid Ines’ friends and colleagues, with characteristic unpredictability, and breaking into her refined but vacuous corporate life-style, ‘Toni’ chips away at his daughter’s icy exterior to try to recover the humour and heart within. While brimming with farcical moments from Winfred’s gags and pranks, a blackly twisted joke regarding mail packages and bombs opens the film, Ade prevents the laughs from overpowering the sombreness and pain between Winfried and Ines. While her repressed, emotionally and sexually distant personality are certainly depicted as destructive (‘You’re not human’ Winfred jokes inappropriately, while her sleazy boss applauds her for being ‘an animal’ in a board meeting), Ade also turns on Winfred’s carefree, irresponsible, even self-aggrandising attitude to life as well. What has occurred between them Ade never reveals explicitly, but there is the suggestion that Winfred’s persistent disruption is also an attempt to making up for lost time and fulfilling a role he should of earlier. As such, the film avoids being merely an out-and-out comedy, reusing old tropes and sketches where the embarrassing parent cramps the style of their unfortunate, adult off-spring.
Simonischek and Hüller, through Ade’s writing and, no doubt, astute improvisation, are wonderfully entertaining in this strained but wholly believable father-daughter dynamic. Simonischek has an immediately evident comedic and lovable presence to him. A bit dog-like himself, he sneaks, bounds and bursts into scenes with shaggy, unkempt hair and mischievously flashing a grin with his grotesque, comedy teeth whenever he can. Yet he is never outright slap-stick nor a source of grotesque amusement, as he never allows the clownish performance of ‘Toni Erdmann’ to overwhelm the sensitive, concerned side that comes out for his daughter. While the jokes are seemingly done at Ines’ expense, we get the impression they are actually for her, she is their intended audience. Hüller, on the other end of the spectrum, is strikingly wound tight as Ines and breaks into petulant tantrums that expose her fragility. But the brilliance of Hüller’s performance is in being able to convey both Ines’ deadpan annoyance and yet minute amusements in her face during her father’s intrusions and antics. These lapses are minuscule to begin with, the corners of her mouth twitching, her head tilting back to look down her nose at him but they develop methodically, breaking through her character until her alarming but entirely liberating birthday party. In this sequence which is unapologetic but unbelievably funny in its audacity, Hüller and all involved embrace its surreal nature and, in perfect line with their characters, just go for it. The humour throughout Toni Erdmann works for its anarchic, childlike glee, its upsetting of social order, norms and manners but also its ability to instruct, level and build empathy.
Ade’s sparse cinematography, all handheld camera-work combined with a noticeable absence of music, mean that the film relies on Huller and Simonischek’s performances to work at the comedic and emotional level. Fortunately and mostly they do. There is a gleeful trepidation that Simonischek is always at the edge of the frame, threatening to intrude into a scene. When is he going to re-appear and what is he going to do? This cinematographic style is an unusual and controversial decision for an ostensible comedy, as while the pacing of individual scenes allow for natural and recognisable social awkwardness (such as when Ines and Winfred wait in excruciating silence for his lift) they can linger a bit too long, betraying the actors’ improvisations or the lack of a diligent editor. The film suffers in its length, alongside tedious and repetitive scenes of back-seat strategising for boardroom meetings which are overkill to understanding Ines’ shark-like work-day.
Despite its unnecessary two-hour and forty minute length, Ade’s film merits a watch for how unexpected yet perceptive it can be. It is the source of its comedic charm and its sympathy. If you watch expecting a feel-good, slapstick farce, you’ll be deservedly surprised and hopefully moved by how stark, sad, cajoling and perplexing Toni Erdmann can be.