An uncomfortable Germanfather-daughter comedy about outsourcing that lasts two hours and 42 minutes— where do I sign up?
Right here, pal. Because “Toni Erdmann”is worth every minute of your time.
Maren Ade’sfilm is almost painful to watch at times, but it’s also funny and touching and reflective of the world as it currently exists, all of this courtesy of Ade and terrific performances by Peter Simonischekas a goofy aging father who refuses to act his age and Sandra Hülleras his daughter, as buttoned-up as her dad isn’t.
When we first meet Winfried (Simonischek),that’s not who he is. He’s disguised himself for the delivery man, pretending to be his non-existent brother. It’s a joke, a goof, good-natured and, if not all that funny, certainly high-spirited.
Ines (Hüller),his daughter, is what you might call an outsourcing artist. She’s working for the CEO of an oil company (Michael Wittenborn)who has no problem moving business and laying off workers, but he doesn’t want the blame for it. That falls to Ines and her company. It’s grim work, but lucrative.
For Ines, it’s also a minefield of condescension and harassment. It’s not that her co-workers don’t respect her shark-like business acumen. They just have a dim view of women (the CEO wants her to both craft a strategy to outsource workers and take his wife to the mall for a shopping trip).
“Are you really a human?” her father asks.
Winfried lives in Germany and Ines in Bucharest,at least as long as she’s under contract to the oil company (she wants to move to Shanghai).They don’t see a lot of each other — Winfried jokes that he has hired a substitute daughter — but when he finds himself rebounding from a tragedy and with some time to spare, Winfried shows up unexpectedly in Romania.
A surprise visit on the eve of a major presentation is tricky enough for Ines, and after an awkward time she thinks she’s sent him packing. But Winfried shows up again, adopting another persona — along with a mop-like wig and fake buck teeth — and now Toni Erdmann, the title character and Winfried’s creation, is in town. Sometimes Toni is a business coach, sometimes the German ambassador, and he shows up at precisely the wrong time, all the time, for maximum embarrassment for his daughter, in on the joke while being the butt of it.
It’s hard to know how to react. Simonsichek is funny, but it’s definitely uncomfortable watching Toni work. At certain points Winfried so invests himself in being Toni I wondered if he was losing his mind, or perhaps beginning to slide into dementia. But there is method to his put-upon madness, and it plays out over the course of the lengthy story.
At times Ines cracks a bit, and at one point she cracks a lot. She’s hard, indifferent to happiness, seemingly beholden to nothing, able to make the men in her business hear what they think they want to hear, even if they’re not hearing what she’s really saying. It was indelicate, yes, but Winfried was barking up the right tree when he asked whether she was human.
But on the occasions when she lets her obvious, if buried, love for her father shine through, it’s heartwarming. Hüller is fantastic at portraying the hardened businesswoman — and the daughter who still wants her dad in her life.
At times when Winfried is seemingly romping through Romania, you think Anes has gone too far, until you remember that she can’t — when Winfried is being Toni, there’s no such place as too far. Yet the payoffs and punchlines are often subtle; the sight of Toni off in the distance getting into a stretch Hummer limousine made me laugh out loud (look for it).
“Toni Erdmann” is unique, rewarding, weird, funny — it’s just the ticket if you’re looking for something different at the movies (and you should be).
Bill Goodykoontz,USA Today Network
Sony Pictures Classicspresents a film written and directed by Maren Ade. Rated R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use). In German with English subtitles. Running time: 162minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.