Toni Erdmann

Synopsis: Winfried doesn’t see much of his working daughter Ines. He pays her a surprise visit in Bucharest, where she’s busy as a corporate strategist. The geographical change doesn’t help them to see more eye to eye. Practical joker Winfried annoys his daughter with corny pranks and jabs at her routine lifestyle of meetings and paperwork. Father and daughter reach an impasse, and Winfried agrees to go home to Germany. Enter Toni Erdmann: Winfried’s flashy alter ego. Disguised in a tacky suit, weird wig and fake teeth, Toni barges into Ines’ work circle, claiming to be her CEO’s life coach. As Toni, Winfried doesn’t hold back, and Ines meets the challenge. The harder they push, the closer they become. In all the madness, Ines begins to see that her eccentric father deserves a place in her life.

***********************************************************************

Toni Erdmann 8.0

eyelights: its message. its light humour.
eyesores: its length. its inconclusive finale.

“You have to do this or that, but meanwhile life is just passing by”

I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t meant to be a careerist. Though, like many, I dreamt of having a lavish home, beautiful furniture, stylish clothes, and an enviable lifestyle, I knew that the trade-off would be to work like a crazy person to make those superficial ideals a reality.

Was the money and prestige worth the stress and time-consumption?

I decided not.

Better to aim for more realistic goals and enjoy your life more, I figured.

But not everyone feels that way; some people actually like playing the game. And some people don’t think it through; they get caught up in the so-called rat race, not realizing that it’s just one big mouse trap. Then they wonder why they’re never happy with their lot in life.

In ‘Toni Erdmann’, Winfried realizes that his daughter Ines has fallen for the illusory promises of the business world; she works tirelessly, day and night, seven days a week, to climb the ladder. But she’s an anxious mess and is never satisfied. He can barely relate to her anymore.

So Winfried decides to intervene, disguised as Toni Erdmann, his alter ego.

‘Toni Erdmann’ was one of the best received and best reviewed pictures of 2016. Though it hasn’t drawn much attention in North America, it did extremely well in Europe and was nominated for countless awards – 51 of which it has won, thus far. It’s basically a “must see”.

It’s on this basis alone that I picked it up. The title would normally have put me off, since it really doesn’t inspire anything but ambivalence, but given all the acclaim and word that it was being picked up for a remake starring none other than Jack Nicholson, it seemed essential.

I’m not so sure now.

While I enjoyed ‘Toni Erdmann’, I don’t quite understand what earned it so many plaudits. The performances are pitch-perfect, the story is good, and relatively meaningful, and the storytelling is solid. But it didn’t really come across as anything especially noteworthy to me.

Plus which the damned thing is three-hours long.

Three hours!

Ironically, the night I watched it, I picked it thinking it was in the 95-minute range – I didn’t have the mental fortitude for anything longer. After a while, I kept looking at the clock, wondering when the darned movie would end, thinking that my perception of time was skewed.

Little did I know…

‘Toni Erdmann’ isn’t a briskly-paced picture, either: it’s a dramedy that revels in the moment, sometimes using the characters’ discomfort to mine a little humour. And it’s generally subtle or subdued about it, too, so the laughs don’t come out flowing in a continuous stream.

The first half of the picture relies entirely on Winfried’s shenanigans, which involve tricking a delivery person into believing his crazy brother did the ordering (and play-acting the part), leading a class choir in death make-up, shadowing his daughter at work in a wig and fake teeth, …etc.

The second half finds his influence taking hold on his daughter, as she allows him to join her on business socials and appointments. Soon she finds herself belting out a Whitney Houston song for strangers and hosting a naked birthday party with her coworkers; she begins to understand his way.

The picture can be touching in that here you find an estranged father going to extreme means to do an intervention of sorts on his daughter, putting himself in potentially embarrassing scenarios. It’s often awkward due to both parties’ discomfort, but the nobility of his efforts tends to counter it.

I have no idea what it takes to be a parent, let alone a good one, and have had pretty weak role models, but I suspect that not everyone would be able to pull off what Winfried does here; it requires a certain amount of gumption to disregard one’s ego and do what one feels to be right.

As someone who’s timid enough that my social anxiety prevents me much of the time from speaking out or acting the way that my heart desires, I can’t help but respect Winfried; you can see just how uncomfortable he is in most situations, how unsure he is – and yet he plows forward anyway.

I’d love to imagine myself doing the same.

I’m not sure I could.

It’s unclear exactly what motivates him, however, other than his daughter’s welfare. We know that he’s a minor prankster at the onset and relishes being foolish. But we don’t quite know what makes him hesitate. Is it because he’s worried how Ines will react? Or because his plan is sketchy at best?

We never find out.

The opaqueness of the characters is part of the picture’s problem. It illustrates the situation really well, but for us to invest in them for three hours, it’s nearly essential for them to be revealed to us a bit more. Yet, rare are the intimate moments when we get to see what lies at their centres.

Thankfully, the performances are rock solid, making both Winfried and Ines entirely credible in all their imperfections and emotional ambiguity; Peter Simonischek is excellent as the shaggy and offbeat paterfamilias and Sandra Hüller is perfectly focused and conflicted as the young woman.

Ultimately, though, does it justify three hours of viewing time? Though ‘Toni Erdmann’ is a very good motion picture, not everyone will want to invest so much time essentially watching a gradual character shift – no matter how amusing some of its lighter touches can be. It’s a real investment.

But its message, subtle though it may be, is compelling: in a society driven by profit at all costs, people get suckered into believing that climbing the corporate ladder is the epitome of self-realization and personal success. It disconnects people from the people and things that matter to them.

I can also see why Hollywood came calling. In fact, I can completely see Jack Nicholson playing Simonischek’s doppelgänger in a remake. The only thing is that it would likely jettison all subtlety for a more raucus approach. Whether that would be good or bad remains to be seen.

Personally, though I quite enjoyed ‘Toni Erdmann’, it was a bit too hefty for the genre. I know that writer-director Maren Ade felt it was the best approach, and if it best expresses her vision, then I’m all for it. I still probably won’t pencil more time into my calendar to watch it again.

The most ironic thing about this picture is that the people who would benefit the most from watching it likely don’t have three hours to kill. Unfortunately, they’re too busy being caught up in the rat race to slow down and pay notice to art and/or culture in any truly significant fashion.

So, in that respect, ‘Toni Erdmann’ is preaching to the choir.

Date of viewing: June 20, 2017

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