Toni Erdmann is a genuine oddity of a film. Loved and trumpeted by many major critics and hotly tipped to lift this year’s Foreign Language Oscar, it’s had so much great word-of-mouth recently that we felt we had to seek it out at our earliest opportunity. We’d been led to expect a laugh-riot, but it certainly isn’t that. It’s a charming and quirky film, featuring a series of strange set-pieces, most of which work and some of which really don’t.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced father who has become somewhat estranged from his buttoned-up, workaholic daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), an ambitious player in the world of corporate business. Winfried has a penchant for terrible practical jokes which generally involve him putting in a set of wonky teeth, something that his friends and family tolerate with knowing grimaces. When his elderly dog goes to the great kennel in the sky, Winfried decides to make an unannounced visit to Ines, who is working in Bucharest. He trails around after her for a day or so, saying and doing the the wrong things until she gets tired of dealing with him and asks him to leave, which he apparently does – but he returns, the same evening, wearing a dodgy wig and those teeth, introducing himself to Ines’s friends and workmates as life style guru, Toni Erdmann. Ines is initially appalled by his presence but for some reason, decides to play along with him and the resulting shenanigans help them to re-establish their bond.
The results are somewhat uneven. There’s a very funny ‘naked dinner party’ and I enjoyed the scene where Winfried forces Ines to perform a karaoke version of The Greatest Love of All to a room full of strangers… but there’s also a misjudged (and frankly unbelievable) scene where Ines persuades a boyfriend to perform a sex act on a play of petits fours (yes, really!) which seems to have wandered in from a different kind of movie entirely. Both Simischek and Huller give compelling performances and it’s to the film’s credit that despite a running time of two hours, forty-five minutes, it never really drags. But this isn’t the breakthrough German comedy that it’s been billed as. It’s fun, it’s unusual and writer/director Maren Ade has created a film like no other.
Just don’t expect the earth to move.