Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Toni Erdmann

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Simultaneously a father-daughter bonding story, critique of soul sucking corporate culture and sexism in the workplace and statement of purpose by an artist who clearly believes that life is made more tolerable by the occasional act of anarchy, Maren Ade's "Toni Erdmann" is a slow burn comedy that is, at once, a generous and moving work of humanism and screamingly, tears-running-down-your-face funny.

Clocking in at a whopping 162 minutes, Ade's film builds and builds on the tension between its characters and results in several scenes of hilarious catharsis towards its finale. The film opens, however, on a scene that should be mundane. Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an aging German school teacher given to folly, receives a package from a mail carrier, but tells the man that the item is for his brother, whom we come to find out is Winfried, wearing a pair of false teeth, revealing shirt and ridiculous wig. The man is a prankster and the audience to which his gags are best suited are, indeed, the children whom he teaches and, at the film's beginning, leads in a school performance that involves wearing makeup that making them look like rejected members of KISS.

On the other hand, Winfried's grown daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), is not so amused by his antics. We first meet her as she haggles over a business deal on her cell phone, while her father - who rarely sees her - and the rest of the family wait patiently in the kitchen to celebrate her birthday. Ines's grandmother registers a series of hilarious looks of disapproval as Winfried dons yet another absurd costume to pester his daughter. But the parent and child hardly speak to one another and Ines quickly returns to Bucharest, where she works as a consultant attempting to pull off a major contract extension with an oil company in a deal that will result in the loss of numerous jobs.

After his beloved dog dies and he is left mostly alone, Winfried decides that his daughter needs more frivolity in her life, so he makes an unannounced visit to her in Bucharest, first appearing in the lobby of her workplace wearing his wig and fake teeth, which prompts her to pretend as if she doesn't notice him, though she clearly does. Ines, although she loves her father, is clearly annoyed by his arrival and, alternately, a nervous wreck due to the contract she is attempting to secure. While Winfried is clearly a person in need of connection, Ines's idea of such a thing is, rather than having sex, demanding that her lover jerk off on a petit four.

Winfried attempts to instill his sense of gaiety in his daughter and awkwardly attempts to notify her that she needs more joy in her life. This doesn't go over well and the trip ends up being a bust. A particularly painful sight to behold is Ines and Winfried standing silently for an uncomfortable period of time as they wait for the elevator in her building to arrive. But as soon as the doors have closed, Ines sprints to the roof and waves goodbye to him on the street with tears in her eyes.

For a while, we observe Ines taking part in mind numbing negotiations with the representatives from the oil company - including a squirm inducing meet-up with her father in tow at a bar, where Ines references the possibility of the oil company's layoffs against her own good judgment - and being the victim of casual workplace sexism - for example, the oil company president's suggesting that Ines take his wife shopping. To make matters worse, Ines's response during most of these scenes is feigned groveling or choosing her words so that she ends up agreeing with everything that is said to her.

Then, most unexpectedly, Winfried pops back up in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach whom Ines awkwardly explains away to those who bear witness to his entrance as being part of the contract negotiation. But as they are forced by obligation - that is, Ines's inability to shake her father and, once he has ingratiated himself with her colleagues, convince him to leave - to spend time together, Ines begins to appreciate his wily behavior and she, in turn, exhibits a bit of anarchy herself.

Much has been written about two scenes in the film's final third, but suffice it to say that a karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" serves not only as a great comedic centerpiece, but also a moving commentary on all that has gone on before. And a brunch held by Ines that acts as the finale, which features what has to be one of the funniest nude scenes of all time, left the audience with which I saw the film in hysterics. That scene is then followed by a bittersweet coda involving a family reunion, of sorts, and a sort of understanding that has been gained between the film's two leads.

Ade's previous film, "Everyone Else," was a critically acclaimed film about a couple whose relationship was tested while on a beach vacation and while I liked it, I was much more taken with - or, frankly, blown away by - "Toni Erdmann," a film that is moving without being maudlin, clever in the way it juggles its various themes involving family ties and workplace culture and, as I've mentioned, extremely funny. The film is long, especially for a comedy, but it earns its running time by using it to ratchet up the tension between the characters, only to have it explode into hilarious catharsis. This is one of the year's finest films and an indication that Ade is a major filmmaker with a distinctive and wildly imaginative voice.

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