Written and directed by Maren Ede, Toni Erdmann is a meandering delight. By turns hilarious and poignant, it concerns the ageing Winfried Conradi’s frequently maladroit attempts to re-establish some sort of a meaningful relationship with his adult daughter, Ines, in the course of a spontaneous trip to visit her in Bucharest, the Romanian capital.
Unkempt, semi-retired and nursing a heart problem, the only way Winfried (Peter Simonischek) knows how to relate to others is by making them laugh. Frequently, this involves him adopting an alter ego by the name of Toni Erdmann, a transformation signalled by him plucking a set of grotesque, yellowed dentures from his shirt pocket, all of which is mortifying for his businesslike management consultant daughter. It is not so much that Ines (Sandra Hüller) is humourless. Rather, she simply doesn’t have the time for games. An exercise in contrasts, Winfried cannot comprehend how his daughter has strayed so far from his sense of play; Ines, meanwhile, is bewildered at her father’s immaturity, at his lack of any ambition beyond pulling off his next practical joke.
So when Winfried, mourning the loss of his beloved pet dog, Willi, arrives unannounced in Bucharest, there is a yawning divide between father and daughter. Winfried even jokes that he is only in Bucharest because he has been forced to hire a replacement daughter and wishes to negotiate with Ines on who between them should bear the cost of the replacement. Contending with his own feelings of aimlessness, Winfried perceives the flashy emptiness of his daughter’s expat existence, but is unable to engage her on the subject. At a certain point, he asks her whether she is happy, whether she is having fun. “Happy is a strong word,” she responds, before firing the question right back at him – he asks for more time to consider it.
Ines dutifully abides her father’s clowning for a weekend; Winfried tries to avoid sabotaging his daughter’s professional endeavours by keeping it in check. Yet, by the time he is to depart home, they remain at a distance from one another. Out of concern for his daughter and with nothing drawing him back to his own life in Germany, Winfried secretly remains in Bucharest in the guise of Toni, albeit without any particular plan in mind. Like a corruptive guardian angel, however, Toni starts to make surprise appearances at social gatherings of the expat glitterati in Bucharest. An uncertain rapprochement between father and daughter gradually ensues, with Ines indulging Toni’s pranks and even starting to engage in her own.
If this all sounds a little strange, it should. It is. The narrative wends its way along, but the film’s 160 minutes of running time are energised by tremendous comedy and an astute sense of the melancholy. From wry satire concerning the pretensions of the wealthy expat class and the world of management consulting to deftly handled physical comedy, there are some splendidly funny moments here – some of the best comic set pieces that you could hope to see and that I do not deign to spoil. The cinematography is understated with handheld camera used to good effect to emphasise the immediacy of the comedy and the extreme anguish of certain instances. But the real triumphs are Ede’s screenplay and the performances from Hüller and Simonischek, who both negotiate the absurd and the meaningful with aplomb.
A film that ponders how to hold on to life’s important moments before they slip through your fingers, how to be not too serious but not too flippant, with understanding and a smile Toni Erdmann captures the inexorable complexity and hilarity of life. And, more particularly, of daughters and their fathers.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Toni Erdmann was reviewed at the Melbourne International Film Festival