TONI ERDMANN, drama, rated R, in German with subtitles, Jean Cocteau,
The apple sometimes falls far from the tree. Many a straight-laced, driven professional is the product of a headlong flight from hippie parents, an equal and opposite reaction to an unstructured childhood.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is a no-nonsense international businesswoman, operating in the upper echelons of a bloodless, male-dominated world. Her father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is something else entirely. And his alter ego, Toni Erdmann, is something else again.
Winfried is a high school music teacher, a rumpled, aging slacker with an even more aging mother and a terminally aging dog. He’s also an inveterate practical joker. He likes to slip into wigs and fake teeth to transition into Toni.
Ines is currently based in Romania. When Winfried goes to a party at his ex-wife’s to welcome their daughter for a brief visit home, she’s constantly on the phone. “I’ve hired a substitute daughter,” he tells her. In the few breaths she takes between phone calls, she issues an ill-advised and insincere invitation to come see her in Bucharest. And he does.
As Toni, he is every corporate careerist’s worst parental nightmare. Wearing a dark Neil Young wig and a mouthful of buck teeth, he pops up into her business life, offering his services as a life coach to the corporate CEO to whom she is pitching a major deal. Ines is no pushover. In the corporate world, she has to gracefully absorb a lot of sexist crap, like taking the CEO’s wife shopping. But when her boss makes a snide remark about her feminism, she snaps, “If I was a feminist, I wouldn’t be talking to you.” And in a sexual encounter with a male colleague, it is she who dictates the action — in the process, forever changing the way you will be able to look at petits-fours.
When the jokester Toni shows up in her Bucharest world, she tries to politely endure him, then finally loses her temper and sends him packing. But like a bad he keeps turning up. Ines is made of tough material, but his oafish, often ham-handed prankishness is a relentless force.
For all his inappropriateness, Toni is deeply human in a way with which his daughter’s job-cutting, outsourcing corporate functionary has lost touch, and his antics are his way of trying to reclaim her. Erdmann translates as “earth man,” and Toni is, at his core, a down-to earth fellow. (Director Maren Ade has said that his first name is a tribute to the late comic Andy Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton.)
clocks in at a hefty two and three-quarter hours, which is a lot of weight for what is predominantly satire. As a result, it suffers bouts of slack time, but they are constantly being redeemed with brilliant bursts of comedy. — Jonathan Richards