Starring Sandra Hüller. In English, German, and Romanian, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
In her third feature, Toni Erdmann, writer-director Maren Ade gives us three generations of modern Germans: an elderly mother with an unfortunate, if historically predictable, past; her son, Winfried Conradi, part of the postwar generation confronting their parents’ crimes; and his youngish daughter, Ines, who dived straight into a globalized business world, with English as a neutralizing lingua franca.
This extravagantly long import recently landed on many top-10 lists, but it contains ideas, not people. Fortunately, the actors are good enough to make you forget its inexplicable plot machinations.
Pale, gamine Sandra Hüller brings melancholy humanity to Ines, a sharklike consultant who advises oil-related companies on how to drop employees with plausible deniability. And Austria’s bulky, grey-haired Peter Simonischek doesn’t let Winfried’s obnoxiousness drive you away—even after he turns up in Bucharest, where his daughter is negotiating a tough deal, and proceeds to mess with her life on every possible level.
Seriously, who behaves this way? The near-indigent Winfried covers his boredom with senseless pranks that border on cruelty. He loves to plunk false teeth over his own, giving him a silly overbite (oddly like Matthew McConaughey’s in Gold). This weird affectation wears thin in the first scene, and if the director cut out the denture-based scenes, she would remove about a third of the film’s almost three hours.
Rave reviews find outrageous hilarity invoked in the film’s centre, in which Dad leaves and then returns to Bucharest, this time with black wig and buck teeth, passing himself off as Toni Erdmann. Every random stranger seems to take “Toni” at his word; is he a business coach or Germany’s new ambassador to Romania? But why would control freak Ines play along with this masquerade, especially after it starts wrecking her job?
Still, my argument is less about logic than aesthetics. This is one crappy-looking movie, and the director’s rejection of soundtrack music, decent lighting, and interesting camera angles underlines the basic shapelessness of most scenes.
Her rapport with the cast is terrific, but many improvisations drag, dulling the few inspired moments that pop up along the way. (Did I mention the three hours?) Essentially, Toni Erdmann is a bleak look at the virtues of indiscipline. But that’s a message this “comedy” takes far too seriously.