4 / 5 stars
I happened to see Toni Erdmann the same day it received a lot of American film press – not for its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, but because a remake had just been announced, starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. That knowledge was a slight distraction, if only because it’s so easy to imagine the American stars inhabiting the same physical characteristics created by the German originals. Jack as the charming, slovenly father desperately seeking a connection with his overworked adult daughter; Wiig as his distant offspring, uptight and tight-lipped; both fitting perfectly into the roles and the wardrobe.
If this is even the slightest hint that a “new” version will stay true to the multi-lingual original, then wunderbar. Maren Ade’s offbeat family chronicle is delightful, full of gentle surprises punctuating a cold world of façades, both professional and personal. Her two stars are relatively unknown in the States but established names elsewhere: Sandra Hüller, as Ines, received worldwide acclaim a decade ago for the film Requiem, and Peter Simonischek, as dad Winfried, has 70+ German-language credits (many TV movies) on his CV. Together, they are a masterful study in ease and subtlety, deconstructing the overworked estranged family genre. Usually marked (and marred) by a narrative crescendo to a shouting match — followed predictably by a soft reconciliation — the tense parent-daughter dynamic is instead played out in small, remarkable notes in Toni Erdmann. Perhaps cultural differences play a role, but it’s refreshing to see a naturally emotional topic toned down closer to a state of reality.
The story is occasionally, lovingly cuckoo. After attending an abbreviated family party, Ines returns to her temporary life in Romania, where her company acts as the corporate bad guy for organizations that need to blame consultants like Ines for downsizing. She’s a shrewd woman in a man’s world, but Ade weakens her in social situations – she’s painfully deferential, and backpedals when she speaks out of turn or is called out by others.
Ines’s staid, unemotional life gets a jolt when Winfried shows up in her life as his daffy alter-ego, an easygoing traveler named Toni Erdmann. It’s a dopey idea on his part, made all the more outlandish by his choice of fake teeth and scruffy wig – he’s telegraphing falseness, falling right in line with the fake front that Ines is forced to convey, but with more honesty.
Hüller is expert at playing down the embarrassment: in her eyes and physical manner, accommodating her superiors and clients is just part of the game. It doesn’t disable Ines – rather, it keeps her part of the conversation. To us, it’s obvious that Ines’ status and stature are practically fixed in the business world, regardless of how upwardly mobile she may think she is.
Simonischek plays Winfried as an aimless but well-meaning fellow – messy hair (and wig), messy shirt, messy life. If there’s such thing as a purposefully mono-toned physical performance, this is it. Simonischek sort of shuffles through the role, getting from place to place half by motivation, half by general momentum. In a couple of moving moments, Winfried sits alone and removes his phony teeth for a spell, taking a deep, sad breath, inviting us to wonder what he’s thinking.
Just after two hours into Toni Erdmann (the movie runs a surprising, but not restless, 2 hours 42 minutes), Ade makes a very explicit case for how exhausting it can be to keep up appearances, set at an unforgettable daytime party. Without giving away the particulars, the daring, extended sequence is a well-deserved conclusion of what’s come before, an awkwardly funny combination of resolve and resignation. When Winfried finally arrives, for unexpected reasons best left unsaid, we hardly even miss Toni. Here’s hoping Jack Nicholson can do it all justice.