Oscar Front-Runner “Toni Erdmann” — Can Buck Teeth and a Fright Wig Bring a Family Together?


FEBRUARY 9, 2017

It’s the current favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  Interested?  Good.

It’s from Germany.  Still fine?

It’s a comedy.  Wait a minute.  A German comedy?

And it’s 2 hours and 42 minutes long.  Hello?  Hello?  Anybody still there?

Welcome to “Toni Erdmann,” writer/director Maren Ade’s very unusual memory book of life with her own practical-joking father.  I will grant you that the film (and its characters) are annoying as hell at first, but once you get on its dark comedy wavelength (and I suspect you will), the film is at the same time both bizarre and absolutely hilarious.  (This week, it was announced that an American remake of “Toni Erdmann” is in the works starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.  I shudder at the overacting to come.)

Ade’s style greatly resembles the techniques of the late Robert Altman — given the bare outline of a story, she gathered her cast to come to play and improvise, the result from which eventually created the story’s spine.  Once you know that’s what you’re getting into, then hang on for the ride.

Here’s the set-up:  Divorced music teacher and notorious practical joker Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) suffers a personal trauma, and looking around for someone to fill the void from his loss, he focuses on making amends with his estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). a buttoned-up business consultant who is currently working in Bucharest.  Impulsively flying there, he shows up unannounced and, anxious to get a reaction, waits for his daughter at her workplace as she is trying to impress clients.  For some reason, he decides that it would be a great idea to have a reunion while wearing his favorite practical-joke props — a fright wig and a set of buck teeth.  Needless to say, it does not go well.

From that point on, “Toni Erdmann” performs a high-wire act that (amazingly) makes you forget the (still overlong) running time.  Once you are presented the dichotomy of the characters — ice-queen daughter meets embarrassingly hippie father — it’s fascinating just how Ade begins to chip away at those stereotypes time after time to bring father and daughter closer together.

But it’s a long haul for each of them.  Winfried, now alone, is desperate to rekindle something with his daughter, but the only mode of communication in which he feels comfortable is his clown act, which he springs on Ines at a corporate cocktail hour in which he poses as “life coach” Toni Erdmann, that, even with wig and buck teeth, enthralls Ines’ clients but humiliates her.

Clearly, during their estrangement, Ines has tried to do her best to put up a wall to protect herself (and her career prospects) from the embarrassment of her father. But to her dismay, a series of unexpected incidents occur to cause that wall to come crashing down, events that will not be revealed here, except they involve nudity.  Lots and lots of nudity.

Just as I suspect that the American remake of “Toni Erdmann” will be a parade of overacting, why the current bold version works is that both Simonischek and Hüller play it absolutely straight, as if dressing up in a gorilla suit is an everyday occurrence.  The harder they try to make us believe it’s a drama, the funnier it is as a comedy.  And that’s a great thing.

So treasure the current “Toni Erdmann,” because, Jack Nicholson not withstanding, this will likely be the version that will live on for years to come.