A studied, variably paced drama that delivers occasional gales of laughter; a comedy that sets estrangement and disconnection alongside the meaning of life. Toni Erdmann is a wonderful contradiction, one that is definitely not for everyone but will live long in the memory for any whose attention it captures (whether you think it curio, classic or critics' pet). It's already a strong contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, having swept the board at the European Film Awards. The EFAs' Best Director and Screenwriter, Maren Ade, is surprised by such proposed accolades, but her third feature is unconventional, bold and warm-hearted enough to be a worthy victor.
So what's the story? A father and daughter meet up unexpectedly, and the pathos of their estrangement is clear. We quickly see that he is a devoted deadpan prankster, and she a driven businessperson. Behind these are, respectively, his understated sadness and her need to maintain a façade – which produce some comedies of awkwardness initially, and a lot of warm fuzzies later. But he, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), decides to turn up unbidden on Ines' business trip (Sandra Hüller, understandably standoffish) in an effort to see how she lives and to celebrate her birthday. She remains distant, and to overcome this he does what anyone would do - don the identity of life-coach/dentist Toni Erdmann, some false teeth and a lustrous toupée and 'coincidentally' turn up around her associates and colleagues.
This collision of the absurd and the domestic leads to an hilarious gear-shift, in which the tone of a normal working life is disrupted by farce. It's a delicate narrative form of Dadaism, and when the thin film of everyday reality is tugged at by 'Toni's' appearances, it's for good reason – when Winfried's affection isn't reciprocated, he resorts to absurd invasions of Ines' life to try and cause her to question it, and hopefully even to live it. Not a strategy any counsellor would endorse, but it leads to nicely observed scenes in which the actors had room to improvise and genuinely surprise each other. The success of this approach is testament to Ade's open directorial hand, and the actors in whom she trusts…
…especially Simonischek (EFAs Best Male Actor), whose perma-tired hangdog demeanour grounds the silliness and makes his character human and sympathetic. I grew to love Winfried/Toni, the antics of the latter made fresh because (unlike the poorly written Robin Williams character you might suspect) he had no hunger for approval, more the air of someone who doesn't quite give a ****. EFAs Best Female Actor Hüller is much more than the 'straight man' in this double act, showing ennui, heart, end-of-tether humour and a composed resistance to subtle workplace misogyny. Maren Ade is saying plenty with this film, which appropriately won her Best Director over Almodóvar and Ken Loach, and the first time this award found its way to a female director. Her script shows us many viewpoints, and her camera gives glimpses of lives on the story's periphery: a distant view of multiple generations of a poor family in their yard beside the executive tower block in which Ines gives her presentation. Such relaxed approach makes this a humanitarian/humanist/human work.
However – the beyond-Dark Knight runtime may try some viewers' patience. I'm amenable to such an approach, but admit that an editor could remove twenty minutes from this cut without the overall impact lessening. Erdmann is remarkable, though, for both leaving a sweet 'embrace existence, value family in whatever form it comes' message, and for provoking the biggest single laugh I can recall in a cinema. That was one moment of many which have resurfaced in my mind since, like internal looping gifs, so at least the epic length offers value for money in comic terms. It also produced shock, squirms and something approaching real joy. Even if European films or unconventional comedies aren't your thing, I'd recommend you give it a go – but maybe that's the prankster in me.