Film Review: Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann is a huge, sprawling family drama that’s being widely seen as a comedy, but it wasn’t intended that way. Writer, director and co-producer of this German/Austrian co-production Maren Ade says it was more about love of a long-suffering sort than laughs.

And yet it is funny, albeit typically in the most uncomfortable, end-of-your-tether fashion, and the fraught humour does mostly survive the unnecessary 162 minute running time.

Drawn slightly from experiences with Ade’s own Dad (which surely isn’t particularly flattering), we’re introduced to the 70ish Winfried Conradi (memorably played by Peter Simonischek), who freaks out a courier by pretending he has a crazy twin, and then donning a fright wig and dentures for a rough joke (Ade said she was inspired by late, lamented and loony funnyman Andy Kaufman). Winfried goes to meet his stressed-out-exec daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), and their time together is tense and both wind up miserable, so Winfried later tries to happily surprise her by appearing in Bucharest as her cutthroat management consultancy attempts to land a major contract. Big mistake.

This is all only the first act, however, and it leads to the appearance of Winfried’s alter ego ‘Toni Erdmann’, a leering creation with the wig and teeth who keeps turning up at the most inconvenient moments, even as Ines’ colleagues see through the disguise and think that he’s just some crank. He isn’t just any old crank, however, and soon he seems to be loosening her up and helping her see how horrendous her professional life truly is, which results in several wonderfully uneasy sequences culminating in a cringing cover of Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love Of All.

There are odd things here: the uncertainly as to whose story it actually is (Winfried’s or Ines’?), which is probably why it’s named after a fictional character; some now-famous graphic nudity and sex, which feel a bit tacked-on; and a few too many overlong scenes that betray Ade’s Kubrickian need to film everything 40 or 50 times. But Simonischek and Hüller are terrific, and hey, this is family.

Rated M. Toni Erdmann is in cinemas now.

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