Cannes review of:
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann
The Irish Times, Fri, May 13, 2016
All hail Maren Ade’s heart-warming, side-busting comedy of disappointed fatherhood. Martin Welbourne?I?
You don’t often hear the furrowed crowd at Cannes applaud during a picture. They did more at Maren Ade’s singular Tony Erdmann. They did a bit of whooping. They laughed like the proverbial discharge pipe. And they gave it a hammering round of applause at the end.
It’s far from a perfect picture. There really isn’t any excuse for it to sprawl across two hours and 40 minutes and in one key scene the protagonist’s motivations are utterly baffling, but this remains the most purely enjoyable film we have yet seen in the main competition. It is vulgar to discuss prizes, but we, nonetheless, guarantee that its trophy cabinet will not be empty in 10 days time.
What we have here is — to reference the late Harry Chapin — a Cat’s in the Cradle movie on a grand scale. Sandra Hüller (so good in the excellent Requiem a decade ago) plays Ines, an overworked, under-fulfilled employee of a German corporate consultancy that is currently doing something awful in Bucharest.
The film is at its flabbiest talking us through unnecessary intricacies of her daily grind. She admits that she and her colleagues are in the business of taking the blame for firing their clients’ employees. She is also required — as one of the few women on the team — to take valuable contacts’ wives out shopping in Bucharest’s designer stores. There are quite a few scenes in which she stands before charts in soulless office complexes.
Back in Germany, Wilfred (Peter Simonischek), her eccentric father, sinks into depression after his dog dies. A few days later, he appears before his daughter and, in the guise of “Toni Erdmann”, begins playing strange pranks on her and her colleagues. There is sweetness and desperation to the man. Early on, he explains to one of Ines’s associates, that he has hired a replacement daughter to stand in for the one he never sees.
Toni is a fabulous creation. Wearing the same teeth that Dick Emery wore when playing the vicar and a wig that looks to be sitting sideways, he blunders about in a flurry of good-natured idiocy. When Ines goes to a restaurant, she finds him propping up the bar, ready to spread a series of quarter-baked lies. At first, he is a businessman. Later, he is the German ambassador. If he can’t soften Ines up with sad eyes, he will wear her down through sheer irritation.
Simonischek and Ade conspire to deliver some beautifully timed comic set-pieces. As his daughter and her friends attempt to enjoy dinner, Toni creates minor chaos just over their left shoulder. A visit to new friends ends with Ines being persuaded to belt out a window-rattling version of The Greatest Love of All. (By this stage in the film, viewers will know to expect her to warble every last word of the song.)
Toni Edermann travels a similar arc to many mainstream American comedies (not all of which star Eddie Murphy). We know that Ines will eventually soften and let her father back into her life. But the film takes endless unexpected detours on its way to that destination. Unconventional turns at a hilarious birthday party in the last act don’t really make sense. Yet Hüller plays it with such gusto and such comic élan that only total grouches will find themselves caring. Other characters appear, but, for all its sprawl, Toni Erdmann still plays like a blissful two-hander between admirable professionals.
A busy producer, Erdmann has not directed a feature since 2009′s excellent Everyone Else, and Toni Erdmann was one of the more unexpected inclusions in the main competition here. What a delightful surprise it has turned out to be. Alongside Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake it brings some welcome humanistic warmth to the festival. And we also got to see the most hilariously unconvincingly disguised father since Reggie Perrin’s Martin Welbourne incarnation.
Yes. I do apologise for doubling down on the British TV comedy references.
Directed by Maren Ade
Starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter
In competition, 162 min
Winfried doesn’t see much of his working daughter Ines. The suddenly student-less music teacher decides to surprise her with a visit after the death of his old dog. It’s an awkward move because serious career woman Ines is working on an important project as a corporate strategist in Bucharest.