MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Toni Erdmann’ is a solid, if unspectacular foreign comedy

Thanks to its admitted quirkiness, this German comedy does a nice job instilling laughs, even if at the expense of other elements of th

| February 17, 2017

My two favorite foreign language films of 2016 were “The Handmaiden” and “Elle.” Both of these films were revenge thrillers with twists and turns out the wazoo. Strangely, despite both of their critical successes, neither of them even qualified to be nominated for the coveted “Best Foreign Language Film” award at the Academy Awards. “Elle” somehow managed to evade the shortlist, while “The Handmaiden” was ousted by its host country of South Korea, who chose “The Age of Shadows” for their official selection instead. One film that has been in the race since the very start has been “Toni Erdmann,” the quirky comedy out of Germany (as ill fitting as that sounds) that swept film festivals this past year. So how does “Toni Erdmann” wind up among the big dogs of my heart?

Maybe it was because there weren’t enough twists, but it fell a bit short.

Now, don’t get me wrong, “Toni Erdmann” is a good film by all means, it just fails to reach the heights set by the previously mentioned films. Being someone who spends a lot of time on the internet, I see a lot of really funny things, which makes watching many comedy films a bit rough on me, since I often don’t find the style of comedy in theaters matching my awful sense of humor, to which I blame myself, not the movies. Even then, “Toni Erdmann” felt like something different from the start. The German people are not known for their senses of humor, so to even hear a joke said in German sounds strange from the outset, but “Toni Erdmann” and its comedy are a lot drier and quieter than one might expect from a slapstick comedy.

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is an aging German man who finds himself tiring of his routine. After the tragic passing of his beloved dog, Winfried takes his estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller) up on her half-hearted offer to visit her residence in Bucharest, Romania whenever he wanted. After spending an awkward weekend together, Winfried heads back to Germany. As Ines gets back to her normal life, she realizes her father never returned to Germany, and has now assumed the alias of Toni Erdmann, a charismatic, yet crude man of many professions, bad teeth and a ruffled wig. Mortified, Ines must navigate her high stress life all while keeping Toni’s true identity a secret to her co-workers.

“Toni Erdmann” is not really my style of humor, nor do I see it being the style of humor of mainstream audiences, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t laugh quite a bit at a few scenes, one particularly wild one near the end involving quite a bit of nudity. This is a strange mixture of dry and slapstick humor, which works some of the time, and flops the other times. When it hits, it hits very hard and effectively. When it doesn’t, it’s surprisingly forgivable, given that the film has a surprising amount of heart; a very strange heart, but a heart nonetheless.

Recently, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to an American remake of “Toni Erdmann,” with Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles, which never left my mind watching both performances. Hüller is quite good as Ines, to which I expect more mainstream English-language films to seek her out now given the success of the film, and her wonderful English spoken quite a bit in the film. I couldn’t help but see Wiig in Hüller during the whole piece, which means either 1. Paramount casted the remake correctly, 2. Hüller has comedic timing similar to that of Wiig’s, or 3. Both. Meanwhile, Simonischek steals the show as Winfried/Toni. While his antics are a bit much occasionally, this is a really sweet role that Simonischek fills out greatly. On the surface, he doesn’t look like the friendliest man, but his oafish heart of gold shines through in every misguided attempt at bonding he tries to initiate.

Directed by Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann” has a bit of a clinical vibe to the film, given Ines’s almost stereotypically German work ethic, as well as the film taking place primarily in office buildings, apartments and on the streets of Bucharest, it’s fitting. Though it’s very much so a foreign film, Ade’s approach to the material is surprisingly American in a way. It’s reminiscent of many indie filmmakers of today like Barry Jenkins, Pablo Larraín or Denis Villeneuve, to which I found worked quite well, given its slapstick nature. It’s not flashy in any regard, but it’s a polished, organized and well-realized film.

Many people turn away from a film the second they learn it’s foreign, but “Toni Erdmann” has a surprising number of scenes spoken entirely in English. With this much English in a film, I’m surprised there weren’t more challenges on the percentage of German-to-English needed to be considered a foreign language film.

Meanwhile, “Toni Erdmann” clocks in at a whopping 162 minutes, to which my largest complaint comes to: there is no reason why this movie has to be this long. I wholeheartedly believe that you could take 30-40 minutes out of this film without any sort of narrative shortcomings. “Toni Erdmann” is somewhat bogged down with filler scenes that feel useless other than to instill a chuckle or two that seemingly goes on forever. It certainly isn’t the slowest film to ever come along, but at this length and at a typical comedic pace, something gets lost in translation.

Will “Toni Erdmann” win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars? Probably. It’s a charming look at family and an even quirkier way of looking at the monotony of life that works quite well. Should “Toni Erdmann” win Best Foreign Language Film? Given the fact that this is shockingly the only nominee I’ve seen so far (Park Terrace removed “The Salesman” after less than 2 weeks), I’m somewhat forced into saying yes. There’s no doubt that this is a funny, well thought-out and very well-made film, but it does struggle with a lapse in comedy sometimes and is far too long for no reason. “Toni Erdmann” is fine, and fine is good enough in my book.

3.5/5

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Ingrid Bisu, Vlad Ivanov, Victoria Cocias.
Runtime: 162 minutes
Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language, and brief drug use.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Park Terrace.

A Sony Pictures Classics release, a Komplizen Film production, in co-production with Coop99, KNM, Missing Link Films, SWR/WDR/Arte, with the support of Film-und Medienstiftung NRW, Eurimages, German Federal Film Fund, German Federal Film Board, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, Austrian Film Institute, FilmLocation Austria, Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, Filmfernsehfonds and Media, “Toni Erdmann”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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