TIFF Review: 'Toni Erdmann'

Toni Erdmann
(Germany, 162 min.)
Written and directed by Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibi
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF

You'll want to give both your parents a hug after catching Maren Ade's utterly brilliant comedy Toni Erdmann. The film, Germany's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year, is a revitalising ode to the embarrassments we face at the hands of mom and dad. Said face-palm inducing papa is Winfried (Peter Simonischek) who decides to shadow his career-driven daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest when she places work before family too often for his liking. Naturally, Winfried’s visit coincides with a hectic schedule as Ines tries to secure the biggest deal of her career. Through awkward situations and frank revelations, Maren Ade uses an observant hand at comedy that captivates with its authentic, messy, and endearing father-daughter duo

Toni Erdmann finds its peculiar brand of humour by having both Simonischek and Hüller play it straight as their characters grapple with the distance between Winfried and Ines. Having a wingman can often be more lucrative than flying solo, though, and the awkwardness between them ultimately gives Ines the nudge she needs.  Despite appearing in a greasy wig and overbite dentures, and acting as overbearingly awkward as Marge Simpson with Tang and Rice Krispy squares, Winfried does little to derail his daughter's coolness. If anything, he improves it.

Ines, however, happens to be a total square who can't hold a conversation that doesn't talk shop. Winfried, and his alter ego Toni Erdmann, on the other hand, are masters at the art of building relationships.  Good business is all about connections and comfort, and Ade's humorously perceptive screenplay underscores this sentiment as Toni Erdmann becomes the secret to Ines’s success.

Simonischek's performance is a masterstroke of comedic art as Winfried/Erdmann piddles in the sidelines, buzzing like the nuisance of a housefly on the periphery of every frame. Ripping farts and cracking zingers with deadpan hilarity, Simonischek's performance recalls the work of Peter Sellers, like a droll Hrundi V.  Bakshi, but with a bigger bowl of birdie numnums. He handily draws out the humanity that motivates the awkward situational humour of Toni Erdmann with a man who is ultimately profoundly lonely and uses humour as his disguise.

Ines, too, seeks connection and Hüller taps into her character's restless hunger as she flirts with a self-destructive drive for her work. She knows nothing but her career. If the battery on her phone were to run empty, her heart, too, would likely fail. Ade shows the loss one faces when one’s life is nothing but work and Toni Erdmann invites the audience to watch life play itself out without a care in the world for the hurried schedules that make existence a daily grind of meetings, emails, and scheduled activity.

Toni Erdmann clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours long, and Ade uses this measured running time to convey the restlessness that Ines desperately needs to escape. While the slow pace of the film poses a challenge, it also lets the humour of Ade’s script explode when Ines reaches her tipping point and has a nervous breakdown. The final act of Toni Erdmann is the funniest stuff you’ll see all year. Whether she’s belting out Whitney Houston and owning a moment of loony humiliation or encouraging all her colleagues to go naked, Ines’s break from her structured, ordered life shows how everyone just needs to let it all hang loose once in a while and embrace living in the moment without any care for schedules.
Erdmann, too, presents his most useful disguise for his daughter when he appears at a disastrous party she holds for her colleagues. Papa bear appears dressed in some over-the-top traditional garb borrowed from a Bulgarian dignitary and he crashes the party like an awkward male stripper, except that his hairy physique clashes riotously with the birthday suits on display in Ines’s apartment. In a moment of revelatory humour and compassion, though, Ines finds an awakening and sees the true measure of success in the hairy giant before her eyes. Happiness is a Bulgarian Sasquatch you can hug.

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
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