Toni Erdmann, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was named best film of 2016 by Cahiers du Cinema, Sight & Sound, and Film Comment. Therefore, I couldn’t help but have my expectations too high. To be sure, Toni Erdmann has moments of brilliance, but over a two-hour-forty-minute running time they are spaced a bit too far apart. But I will say this–there are scenes that I won’t forget for a long time.
The film is about a retired music teacher (Peter Simonischek) who likes to pull people’s legs. At the very outset he pulls ours–he tells a package delivery man that his brother is just out of jail for mail bombs and is eating dog food. He comes back to the door as his brother, but it’s him, with fake teeth. It took me a moment or two to realize there was no brother.
Simoischek lives with a very old dog, and is barely in touch with his daughter Sandra Huller, who was a big-shot business consultant living in Bucharest. When his dog dies, he has nothing better to do than fly to Bucharest and surprise her. It will turn her life upside down.
He tags along at a reception at an American embassy and embarrasses her in front of a CEO whose business she’s trying to win (he tells the man he has hired a substitute daughter who will clip his toenails). After she think he’s gone, she goes out for dinner with friends and he shows up in a bad, long-haired wig, wearing those awful fake teeth, and claiming to be Toni Erdmann, who is friend of the Romanian tennis player Ion Tiriac, and is in town for Tiriac’s turtle’s funeral. Huller does not blow the whistle on him, and despite herself becomes enmeshed in his masquerade.
So what is writer-director Maren Ade trying to tell us? That “Toni Erdmann” is bringing happiness into the hum-drum, all-business life of his daughter? She is very uptight, but is also kinky. One scene I will never forget is when she makes her lover, a colleague, masturbate onto a pastry, which she then eats. If the dad is the free spirit who knows the secret to happiness, I’m not sure it’s posing as the German ambassador while your daughter watches her career go down the drain.
Ade could use a better editor. Some scenes go on way too long. I think of when father and daughter visit a local family’s house for Easter. He pushes her to sing “The Greatest Love of All,” all verses. It’s a naked moment for Huller, but it’s so cringe-worthy, even though she’s not a bad singer, that I wanted to crawl under the chair.
And speaking of naked moments–the scene everyone who has seen it will talk about is when Huller is giving a birthday brunch. She is so frustrated while getting dressed that she answers the door wearing only panties. It’s a female friend, so nothing is too shocking, but then she decides it’s going to be a naked party. She takes off the panties, and no one is allowed to stay who isn’t naked. This leads to some amusing scenes of full frontal nudity (there are two penises seen in this movie, so at least it’s fair). Then, if that weren’t enough, Simonischek shows up wearing a huge furry costume that is apparently a Bulgarian folk character that drives away evil spirits.
To me, Toni Erdmann’s particular moments don’t add up and instead it’s just a series of strange events. I’m not sure Huller learned anything, nor did Simonischek. I read one review that says it’s a long film but never self-indulgent; I think almost the whole movie is self-indulgent (there are also a lot of scenes about the oil business that are completely unnecessary).
German comedies are unusual–it is said to be one of the world’s shortest books (along with Italian war heroes or the Amish phone book)–and though Toni Erdmann is at times very funny, it fails when it tries to balance it with pathos. It’s a noble effort, and I’m glad I saw it, but best film of the year? No.