Father-daughter story wrestles with the serious work of enjoying life
In a sense, the title character in Maren Ade’s Oscar-nominated film from Germany (Best Foreign Language Film) doesn’t really exist, and yet he’s the most influential figure in the film and the chief catalyst in its comic-dramatic story.
This “Toni Erdmann” is the imaginary friend, “brother,” alter ego and favored comic alias of a semi-retired music teacher named Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Winfried is an unkempt, hulking fellow with a gloomy look to him and a nutty flair for offbeat jokes and “spontaneous” pranks.
At this stage of his life, his main focus seems to be on reconnecting with his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), an ambitious “consultant” in international investments who’s distinguished by her workaholic tendencies and a 24/7 focus on finessing complex business deals. As a result, Ade’s Toni Erdmann is also a darkly comical father-daughter drama, a set of curious episodes from the not entirely estranged lives of Ines and Winfried.
With the spirit of the Toni Erdmann persona presiding over it, the father-daughter relationship makes a paradoxical, sideways kind of progress. Winfried’s low-key buffoonery disrupts his daughter’s work-centered life in what look like all the wrong places, but his dogged persistence, however farcical, bespeaks a poignant deepening of emotional needs. And Ines, though much dismayed, begins to mirror her father’s Toni Erdmann spirit in some small but surprising ways.
The father-daughter relationship gives the film its deftly understated emotional core, but there’s much else to observe and ponder in this long (158 minutes) and steadily intriguing movie. There’s a stinging comedy of contemporary manners in Ines’ various encounters with her colleagues and even more so in the encounters where her father is also present. Plus, Winfried’s Toni Erdmann moments become the focal point of a frisky little allegory on playfulness as a saving grace.
In some ways, Ines seems “all work and no play” while Winfried, via Toni, can seem compulsively or even pathologically playful. Ade’s screenplay, however, takes care to insure that neither the characters nor the “play” allegory become simplistic. Eventually, the urge to disruptive playfulness begins to make itself felt with characters and scenes for which neither Winfried nor Toni is present.
Simonischek is a great shaggy dog of a wounded clown in the Winfried/Toni role. Hüller’s Ines at first seems merely a tense caricature of stressed-out anxiety, but the overall performance is a small marvel of nuanced emotion and unspoken thoughts. And Hüller is the key figure and chief beneficiary of two of the film’s more memorable set pieces: a perversely anti-erotic sex scene with Ines and her workplace boyfriend (Trystan Pütter), and an over-the-top bit of karaoke balladry.