If a comedy knows what is good for it, it will clock in at under 90 minutes. Brevity being the soul of wit, and all that. Maren Ade, writer-director of the German-language Oscar nominee, Toni Erdmann, didn’t get that memo. The film not only clears the 90-minute mark, it speeds past it in a Lamborghini, gleefully so. Ade cracked the code for how to make a very long film while managing to be funny throughout, building upon its silly premise until the film is fit to burst. Andy Kaufman infamously sang the entirety of “99 Bottles of Beer” onstage, the audience veering from stunned disbelief, to annoyance, to rage, and finally to outright hilarity. Toni Erdmann is that routine’s cinematic equivalent.
Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a workaholic consultant who is struggling to put together a deal for her company. She is German but has been posted near her client in Bucharest, Romania for some time. Her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is an underemployed teacher who loves practical jokes, carrying around a set of false teeth like Linus’s security blanket.
Winfried visits Ines in Bucharest unexpectedly, planning to stay a month, when it becomes apparent that she doesn’t want him and his relentless silliness around. Believing he’s headed home, Ines goes out for drinks with some friends, and who is at the bar but her father. This time, he is wearing a shaggy brown wig and those same false teeth, claiming to be a man named Toni Erdmann, life coach to the CEO whom Ines is so put upon to impress. Incredulous at her father’s gall, Ines begins to play along. Winfried commits to his ruse and stays in character, turning up wherever Ines goes. Then it gets weirder.
In a twisted way, Ade’s film is a thematic reversal of a common trope from 90s family films: the overworked parent (often a dad) is taught a lesson about how to spend time with his kids, usually from kids themselves. Strip away pat lessons learned, add in a healthy dose of skin-crawling discomfort, and double the runtime. You now have a semblance of an idea of what watching Toni Erdmann is like.
Despite the film’s epic length, it’s editing is the key to understanding the ludicrous spell it casts on you. Unlike the lion’s share of modern comedies, Ade’s film feels tightly written and constructed. Rather than cutting scenes based on how long the actors can improvise off a single joke, Ade and her editor, Heike Parplies, allow them to continue far past their typical breaking point. Like Ines with her incorrigible father, we have to wallow in the intense unease he causes her. Most films would cut after the punchline, but the punchline here is the extent to which these moments go on. This style of editing contributes to the film’s 162 minutes, as does the methodical breaking down of Ines’s chilly exterior.
Hollywood productions strive to convince us of their protagonist’s arc, that they have changed significantly from the first to last scenes. Toni Erdmann uses its length truly to drive that point home. By the time the credits have rolled, we have witnessed her father’s behavior go from merely strange to downright insane, and we see the effect it has on Ines. If other characters didn’t acknowledge Erdmann’s existence, we could be convinced that he is a figment of Ines’s thinly stretched psyche, a product of too much work and drinking, and not enough sleep. When all is said and done, it’s possible that Ines has surpassed Winfried in terms of aberrant behavior. Also, that she’s worse for the experience.
Ade isn’t telling, and neither are the performances by Hüller and Simonischek. Hüller is so tightly wound that she is reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst if she subsisted solely on a diet of lemons and Warheads candy. Simonischek is a toddling bear of a man, sheepishly grinning regardless of the situation. If he weren’t so crafty in his elaborate pranks, it’d be tempting to say that he is simple-minded. He is ideal as a walking-talking dad joke, the bewildering comic foil to Hüller’s desperately grim straight woman. The fact that no nuclear reaction occurs when they share the screen is a tribute to the actors’ humanity, which is constant no matter how ludicrous things get.
Toni Erdmann is powerfully not for everyone, the kind of film that could use a bit of vetting on the part of the viewer before settling down to see it. The woman behind me at my screening exclaimed in surprise that the film was in German, which is the least of the loony aspects of this movie. Ade has only made three features thus far, and it’s been seven years since her last. She’s only 40 years old. If you have the endurance for a film as filled with oddness – and daring – as Toni Erdmann, you will understand how much of a feat this is.
Comedy | Sony Pictures Classics