While sometimes resembling a three-hour sitcom, Toni Erdmann has performances and moments in which it is elevated
One of the most critically beloved competitors at Cannes, Maren Ade’s eccentric, slow-burning comedy-drama Toni Erdmann has a premise, and even themes, straight out of high-concept Hollywood comedy. Bereft at the departure of his final music pupil, and bereaved at the death of his dog, elderly German prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek) pays a surprise visit to his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a joyless management consultant planning an outsourcing drive in Bucharest.
Despite clearly not being wanted, Winfried keeps surprising Ines with a series of stitch-ups designed to lighten her up, ultimately insisting on a running gag – with massive wig and ludicrous fake teeth – where he ingratiates himself into her business community playing the role of a life coach named Toni Erdmann.
There have been countless previous plots about uptight yuppies trying to impress their bosses, embarrassing parents trying to be kooky and families needing to come together and embrace life. In some ways, Toni Erdmann doesn’t improve on them – the humorous situations are so artificial that they distance the drab, handheld visuals from feeling like reality, and they’re often not inventive enough to make the film feel like more than a three-hour Euro-arthouse expansion of an American TV sitcom.
In other ways, Toni Erdmann does rise above: the performances are fragile, gaining emotional momentum over the expanded running time, especially Hüller, who’s never so moving as when she feebly tries to drop her business guard and appear spontaneous or womanly. And just as the film seems primed for a self-pitying, cheap-shot conclusion, there’s a liberating extended set-piece of fumbling group adventure, and an incarnation of Winfried that achieves a mythic, cathartic quality.
Toni Erdmann received its UK premiere at London Film Festival