Cultural and language differences frequently prevent foreign films from connecting with American audiences, but “Toni Erdmann,” a German film from writer/director Maren Ade transcends these obstacles to create a poignant, beautiful story for anyone.
When American filmgoers see a film labeled as a comedy, there is a certain expectation for humor. If the movie isn’t funny enough, critics label it a failure, and the public rejects it, as seen in recent films from actors such as Adam Sandler. “Toni Erdmann” acts as a rebuke to these expectations, making a comedy slight on laughs and heavy on emotional drama.
With “Toni Erdmann,” Ade completely upends the typical Hollywood comedy formula, successfully creating a comedy dependent on its characters instead of its humor. Long
stretches of the film consist of its characters leisurely talking, with only a seldom joke or sight-gag, but each character feels so real and relatable the viewer forgets their expectations.
Sandra Hüller plays Ines Conradi, a highly successful German business consultant stationed in Bucharest, Romania with dreams of being promoted within her company and moving to China. She lives a fairly typical life with little-to-no surprises, until her playful, joke-loving father Winfried (played by a magnificent Peter Simonischek) decides to visit without warning, throwing a wrench into her plans. It does not take Winfried long to realize he is not welcome, and he decides to leave.
The film’s plot does not kick off in earnest for about 45 minutes, but Ade’s deliberate pacing gives the characters room to breathe. By taking its time, “Toni Erdmann” lets the viewer see the ins and outs of Ines’ buried dissatisfaction and Winfried’s desire to create joy and laughter in others. These finally clash when Winfried begins to appear in all aspects of Ines’ life under the alias of Toni Erdmann, donning a terrible wig and a quite-hilarious set of fake teeth.
As the character of Erdmann, Winfried finally has an excuse to spend time with his daughter, and they grow closer throughout the film’s overlong, nearly three-hour runtime. The pacing in the brilliant first act and the last act work to develop the characters, but the film’s middle could easily lose about thirty minutes. Too much time is spent on episodic, repetitive scenes with the same result of Ines slightly warming up to Winfried.
Though the middle drags, “Toni Erdmann” picks up in its conclusion, creating a bizarre, hilarious and heartfelt scenario involving large amounts of non-sexual nudity and a large, furry creature. Saying any more would give away the scene’s surprise, but it shifts quickly in tone from the film’s sole hilarious moment to its most heartfelt. Hüller perfectly controls the scene with a layered performance containing shades of humiliation, shamelessness, hope and forgiveness.
“Toni Erdmann” deservedly received a nomination from the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film on Tuesday, which hopefully will boost its profile in America. With an innovative creative voice, the film genuinely stands out among the crowd, and merits a watch even from those who typically stick to American film.