Overview: A man plays pranks on his daughter to address her seriousness. 2016; 163 Minutes.
A Feel Good Film: When Winfrey Conradi is sent home after a disappointing weekend attempt to reconnect with his daughter Ines, he realizes the extent of which her life is consumed by her work. He returns, as the titular alternate persona, the life coach Toni Erdmann, and attempts to instill a more zestful life energy into her monotonous routine by playing pranks and tricking her friends.
Toni Erdmann is as feel-good a movie as one can expect to see at Cannes. The film explores the beauty of life and the necessity to maintain a good sense of humor in such a way that balances the joy with moments of clarity of ennui.
Earned Laughter: The film has a 163 minute runtime but its editing is tight and it hardly misses a beat. Its characters, even in moments that reveal their personal flaws, are extremely easy to root for. The father/daughter relationship is heartwarming and adorable, their love – which always exists in spite of moments of hatred – immediately contagious and involving. At my viewing, in a surprising turn from a generally difficult crowd to please, the press interrupted the film twice with uproarious applause, and it was apparent that almost every attendee was smitten, overtaken by the film’s fuzzy demeanor which is convincing and never once saccharine or fake.
The two leads, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, are fantastic, concealing complex characters under shallow surfaces. Watching each slowly influence and mold the other to become the best that each can be provides fascinating arcs. Toni Erdmann is a bilateral film, one full of moments that elicit laughter atop a sustained, deserved, more sincere and constant emotion. The sheer contrast from Simonischek’s Winfried – who dons fake teeth and has just begun mastering the whoopee cushion – and Hüller’s Ines , who comes up with new and creative ways to fire large amounts of people for a living beats insecurity into her secretary and exudes a phony charisma, is enough to earn a films’ worth of laughs.
Dramatic Undertones: But in spite of all the good fun that is to be had from the film’s general plot, there is a bittersweet sadness to the film. One which, even after overcoming with a drastic turn, hints at everlasting emotional scars. At times it even questions whether comedy or humor is a worthy catalyst for motivating change and the true curative effects it has on estrangement; both participants in this game are ostensibly hurt, and for a while it is up to interpretation whether the father is being helpful or disruptive.
Overall: Toni Erdmann is an entertaining and simultaneously intelligent film. In the father/daughter drama subgenre, one in which there is no dearth of selections, director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann stands out as a fresh, new entry.