Directed by Maren Ade. Starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Vlad Ivanov. (2016, R, 162 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 17, 2017
One of 2017’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, this pleasantly rambling absurdist father/daughter drama is also one of the most strikingly unusual films of the year, period. It’s a Teutonic take on ambition, loneliness, and the importance of switching things up now and again in order to retain some semblance of sanity in a workaday world that is too often too driven, too hard, and too much. It’s not a comedy per se, but it does boast one of the most riotous naked party sequences yet committed to film (a niche genre at the best of times, but trust me, it’s beyond memorable). To put it another way, as one of the main characters bemusedly notes at one point, Toni Erdmann is interested in the meaning of life, that is, a good life, and how easily that beguilingly simple yet seemingly arcane knowledge can slip through our fingers like so much sand.
Simonischek is Winfried, a burly, perpetually unshaven middle-aged single father who, when we first meet him, is busy confounding a delivery man by pretending to be two different people, badly. When his beloved dog Willi dies from old age, Winfried takes it upon himself to visit his estranged daughter Ines (Huller), as much a driven workaholic – she’s a corporate consultant – as her father is a goofball. Things do not go well with the entry of endearingly slobbish Dad into her buttoned-up, highly regimented world, and father and daughter part ways. Most other family relationship dramas might leave things there, but not director and screenwriter Ade. This merely serves as a launching-off point for the emotional meat of the film as Winfried inexplicably reappears in Ines’ life sporting a patently ridiculous disguise comprised solely of a bad, shaggy wig and grimy false teeth. Calling himself by the titular moniker and adopting an unknowable accent, he introduces himself to Ines (who recognizes him right off but, surprisingly, plays along) and some of her friends at a bar, telling them he’s a “life coach” in town for the funeral of a friend’s pet turtle. Why not?
With its nearly three-hour running time and Bizarro World parent-child bonding themes, it feels impossible to describe just how thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying Toni Erdmann ends up being. Certainly it’s not your average familial drama, not when Winfried’s hairy alter ego begins showing up all over his daughter’s life in exponentially increasingly oddball situations and outfits. Simonischek, all ruddy, playful bearishness, and the amazing Hüller allow themselves to sink deep within these two characters, and the end result is nothing short of unforgettable.