Germany does not have a terrific reputation for parenting. Seriously, ever seen Haneke’s White Ribbon? Winfried Conradi will not help it much. He is not a bad guy, but he was not a great father. He will try to patch things up with his semi-estranged grown daughter Ines, but it is not clear he has the proper skill set in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Conradi had been content to while away his retirement pranking unsuspecting deliverymen in his “Toni Erdmann” persona. However, the death of his beloved pooch stirred a need for human connection, so he decides to drop in unannounced on Ines in Romania, where she works for an international consulting firm. She is certainly surprised but not exactly thrilled to see him. It is an incredibly awkward visit, but the client perversely enjoys Conradi’s humor, exactly because it is so embarrassing for his daughter.
Just when Ms. Conradi thinks she is finally rid of the old man, he shows up wearing his Toni Erdmann wig and false teeth, claiming to me a consultant and career coach. Since “Erdmann” drops all the right names, Conradi’s expat business friends assume he is legit, despite his obvious eccentricities. Yet, instead of protesting or discouraging him, Conradi rather passive aggressively eggs him on. It gets to the point where the joke takes on a life of its own and it becomes unclear just who the jokester is. However, old man Conradi never loses his knack for embarrassing his daughter.
This film is over two and a half hours long. Yes, that is excessive, but you have to stick with it, because it really comes together in the third act. Ade could have probably tightened up the first hour without much sacrifice, but you can’t say she doesn’t establish the heck out of her characters. That also allows her to really lower the emotional boom down the stretch. In fact, the film crescendos with a boldly extended gag worthy of Blake Edwards at his peak, except Ade executes it with an edge of hostility that makes the film uniquely itself.
Yet, TE will probably be defined (in iconic terms) by the pitchy but defiantly in-your-face karaoke rendition of George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All” (hip viewers will know Whitney Houston was covering the pop jazz guitarist’s theme song for The Greatest, starring Muhammad Ali as Muhammad Ali) Erdmann cajoles Conradi into performing. It is a perfect choice in the context of the film, due to Conradi’s bitterly ironic spin on Linda Creed’s saccharine lyrics of empowerment.
Ade certainly asks much of Sandra Hüller—and she gives it all. As Ines Conradi, she is stripped naked physically and emotionally. It is a bold, brittle performance that thoroughly shuns the safe harbors of likeability and sentimentality. She also forges some perfectly apt, profoundly dysfunctional chemistry with Peter Simonischek’s Winfried Conradi and/or Toni Erdmann. When his character is in character, it gives us an idea how hideously annoying Robin William’s Patch Adams would be in real life. Yet, we can always tell he is a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown.
It is Hüller and Simonischek who put on the show, but Ingrid Bisu still effectively presents a pointed counterpoint as Anca, the naïve junior co-worker who often bears the brunt of Ines Conradi’s professional frustrations. She definitely rolls it downhill, which Ade clearly presents as a problematic, ultimately self-defeating practice.
In terms of visuals and music (save for Hüller’s big number), Toni Erdmann is an unfussy production. More to the point, Ade really understands the messiness of father-daughter relationships as well as the stateless limbo existence of international consulting work. It pays off at the end, but it still seems like an unlikely Oscar frontrunner, Regardless, the group has spoken and the Academy has listened thus far, including Ade’s film on the 9-title foreign language shortlist. Given its accessibility, Toni Erdmann is recommended for fans of art-house crossover hits, when it opens today in New York, at Film Forum. Merry Christmas.