Toni Erdmann. (15.)
Directed Maren Ade.
Starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter and Hadewych Minis. In German with subtitles. 162 mins
Toni Erdmann is an epic German comedy about people with no sense of humour; well, what else would an epic German comedy be about? Ines (Hüller) is a joyless overachiever, totally focused on her work. She has little use for any kind of social interaction that isn't advancing her career goals, especially ones involving her embarrassing father (Simonischek) a man for whom the phrase, “I'm joking” has become something of a mantra, muttered sheepishly as yet another jest or prank falls flat. In an attempt to reconnect with his daughter he drops in on her in Bucharest, and invents a comedy alter ego Toni Erdmann, and armed with a wig, false teeth and a whoopee cushion, tries to bring some fun back into her life.
In his Toni Erdmann outfit Simonischek looks like James Brolin after rummaging through Dick Emery's old wardrobe; or George Harrison Marks in Come Play With Me, the famous 70s British sex comedy that was both fiercely unsexy and unfunny. This film is offering up a similar kind of stubbornly determined anti-comedy. The film making is deliberately scrappy. The film drifts on for as long as a Transformers movie (Is this the longest comedy movie since It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?) and it seems to be making a point of being random and disorganized. Comic scenes are set up and then not followed through on. A couple of times you'll notice Erdmann appear in the background, being vaguely disruptive but it doesn't go anywhere, hilarity does not ensue: hilarity lurks in the wings waiting for its cue but then wanders off when it's clear it won't be required. Stick with it though, there are a couple of memorable scenes in the last hour.
There is a bigger picture here. Ines is a consultant and her work in Bucharest is to instigate a series of outsourcing initiatives and job cuts. She circulates in a world of privilege; spirit-crushed but insulated from the intense poverty that is all around her. The film sets up some hoary old Hollywood cliches – the buddy movie where a clown tries to get the buttoned down careerist to loosen up and enjoy life; the trip that brings the generations together – and delights in watching them fail. The father never stops being an annoying twit. This is maybe the first film where you side with a ruthless, job cutting consultant over the supposed redeemer/ lightener-upper. The film is a grim vision of an utterly broken and utterly corrupt Europe, where everybody is miserable and nobody is getting any benefit from it – very much like the audience I watched Toni Erdmann with.
Who knows, maybe Toni Erdmann has them guffawing through their sauerkraut down the Rhine, and I'd have like to see it with an audience that got it, see what they found funny and maybe I would’ve been “laughed in.” Erdmann has been one of the most acclaimed movies of 2016 and the thrust of this avalanche of rhapsodical critical praise seems to stem from one packed screening at Cannes. With comedy if you get on a roll it can escalate exponentially and I can imagine the audience, once they decided to take to this oddball creation, collectively egging themselves on to love the film. They gave two scenes standing ovations, apparently. I saw it in a nearly deserted and entirely unmirthed screening room – but who knows maybe the smattering of other viewers were Loling on the inside. (I believe it is considered bad form for critics to break face during screenings.) From Cannes it went on to top the Sight and Sound Asleep poll for best film of 2016. The actions of a willfully out of touch and self satisfied elite? There are a lot of them about apparently. Toni Erdmann is the kind of film that can make a good man turn Ukip.