Synopsis: A practical joking father tries to reconnect with his hard working daughter by creating an outrageous alter ego and posing as her CEO’s life coach. (Source)
Toni Erdmann strikes a chord because it centers around someone we know all too well – you know who I’m talking about, that family member, the black sheep who doesn’t fit in, and the person we can’t live with or without. For her latest film, director Maren Ade puts this contradictory relationship on blast, bringing to life a riotous father/daughter duo that’ll make you laugh ‘till it hurts and kick us while we’re down. Though the film’s laughs are consistent, there’s also a deep poignancy at work, with Ade probing the constant chaos of our everyday lives and the ways that it can cut us off from what matters most. Stars Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek astound with palpable chemistry – we really buy into the ways they drive each other crazy, but also the deep-seated love and admiration that nothing can diminish. You can come for the progressively perverse laughs, but it’s the film’s heart and message about family and that are unforgettable.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a newly retired music teacher and a barrel of laughs, ofttimes to the detriment of those around him. The guy is an eternal prankster, someone who stokes the flames just to watch everything burn down around him, but he’s also got an undeniable heart of gold. As the story begins, Winfried is at a crossroads, and he decides to pay his estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) an impromptu visit. Ines is a high-profile business consultant in Bucharest, Romania, a workaholic who has given every fiber of her being to the job, with nothing else in sight but her own ambition. Ines tries to entertain her father for his short visit, but unsaid tensions rise and he seemingly leaves her, not wanting to intrude further into her tumultuous life. Then, out of the blue, Winfried reappears again, this time disguised as business consultant and life coach, Toni Erdmann, who playfully weasels his way into Ines’ life, intent on pushing her to the breaking point.
Ade’s film thrives thanks to its wildly ingenious premise, one that’s unhinged and unpredictable till the very last frame. Without saying too much, the plot is very much a deconstruction of not only the ideas at play, but the lives of its characters, making for a narrative that conceptually folds in on itself but never loses sight of the humanity that it’s exploring. Identity, family and a fear of letting go of what we can’t control all come into play, and Ade directs everything with a spontaneity that feels dangerous – there’s a sense that Ines and Winfried can spiral at any moment. As the pair play a psychological cat and mouse game with each other, one-upping themselves to see how far they can go, an unsaid bond forms out of their desperation and disparity. In the end, Ade’s film has some of the best running gags and emotional gut punches put to film, amounting to an experience that transcends genre, including a heartfelt story about finding the time to appreciate what’s right in front of us.
Though the film has a lengthy runtime (almost three hours), Simonischek and Huller are always watchable, making the time fly by like a blip. As Winfried and the shaggy-wigged, prank toothed Erdmann, Simonischek is endlessly charismatic and sweet natured – he is the film’s heart and soul, and there’s a gentle quality that pervades his button-pushing pranks. The deeper Simonischek takes us into Erdmann’s schemes, the more we fall in love with him, treading a fragile line between antagonist and nurturing father. Huller’s Ines is the perfect opposite, a harried, self-absorbed workaholic who keeps her eyes so fixed on the next intangible goal, that she’s blind to her own self-destruction. Huller is the straight-faced of the pair, delivering the film’s unintentional humor with perfect timing and a ferocity that allows her character to dominate each relationship and troublesome situation by the horns. Huller is a commanding presence who hides a deep fragility just waiting to crack. Together, the two are impossible to look away from, exploring the gamut of human emotions with the utmost of urgency.
With Toni Erdmann, Ade proves herself an expert observer of humanity, illustrating both our greatest strengths and flaws with heartbreaking precision. Ade is keen to primal human desires and instincts, shining a light on the transience of our lives and how quickly things can change, but still gets her point across with understated grace and unsuspecting off-color jokes. By the end of it all, we’re intoxicated by the film’s look at the things and people we take for granted, and we’re left with a life-affirming nudge that we’re all in this together.