At the Cannes Film Festival, it seems like each year there's one movie that enters the fest as an unknown quantity and emerges as one of the most buzzed-about films of the year. Going into the 2016 festivities, there was already quite a bit of excitement for films like Jeff Nichols' Loving, Andrea Arnold's American Honey, Paul Verhoeven's Elle, and Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. But before May, I had heard absolutely nothing about director Maren Ade's third film, Toni Erdmann. That changed rather quickly. Ade's film was embraced by nearly everyone at the festival, and the reviews were simply out of this world. There was a huge uproar when the Cannes Jury failed to give the film a single award, and in the subsequent months, Toni Erdmann began popping up on "Best of" lists everywhere. So with high hopes and the possibility of a foreign language Oscar play, Ade's film is now tackling the fall circuit. After a North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics took the film to Toronto last week, which is a festival that can often make or break a movie.
With months of hype surrounding it, my expectations truly couldn't have been higher for Toni Erdmann. The film runs 162 minutes in length, and to be quite honest, I wasn't planning on seeing the film unless it fit into my festival schedule perfectly. Surprisingly, it opened at the Ryerson Theatre on Thursday night, which was the best time that a nearly three hour long film could have played. So after a long and hectic day of travel, I sat down for my very first film at TIFF- a nearly three-hour long comedy. And for me, it lived up to the absurdly strong early reviews. Toni Erdmann is an uncommonly ambitious comedy, a corporate satire blended with goofy family hijinks. The characters can be grating and the humor is as dry as you can get, but for those with enough patience to let Ade and the cast take you on a crazy ride, Toni Erdmann works wonders.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) is pretty much the definition of a workaholic. She is fully devoted to her job as a consultant at a major company, and she lives to please her bosses and create the best deal. In the midst of her workplace insanity, she has lost her sense of self. Enter Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Winfried is Ines' father, and he has a propensity for playing pranks on her and just about everyone else in her life. For the humorless Ines, this poses a major problem. After a lengthy visit, Ines kicks Winfried out (she seems to regret this at times, but her job is more important), and sends him back home. She knows that her father is dealing with a lot, including the loss of his dog, but she simply doesn't seem to care. But this is far from the end of the story. Winfried strikes back by taking on the disguise of Toni Erdmann, a corporate coach with a bad set of false teeth and a ratty wig. Their complex interactions spark a whole range of humorous incidents, and in the end, they just might change Ines for the better.
Do we need more people like Ines or more people like Winfried? This question lies at the heart of Toni Erdmann, and I think it's fundamental in understanding whether or not you'll enjoy this film. Ade's lengthy opus is an impassioned plea for humor in the world, a cry for people to not take things so seriously all the time. If you're somebody who hates pranksters and jokers like Winfried/Toni, there's a good chance that this movie will annoy the hell out of you. Winfried's constant obstruction of Ines' corporate life can grind on the nerves, and I've heard many people say that they hated this film just because of that character. For me, Winfried was the heart of the movie and a character that I loved spending time with. Every other character in Toni Erdmann is distant and chilly, and Winfried is the one shining light that brings some pathos to it all.
The arc of the story involves Winfried teaching Ines to lighten up her world, and the effectiveness comes from the dynamic performances at the center. Frankly, Sandra Huller's Ines is a mostly unlikable character at the start of the movie. She seems to have lost her personality in a wave of soul-sucking corporatism, which makes her transformation all the more impressive. Huller creates a beautiful portrait of a woman reclaiming her identity, and I really loved the way that she and Ade peeled away the layers of Ines as the film unfolded. Peter Simonischek gives one of the most impressive performances of the year as Winfried/Toni, a richly comedic portrayal of a goofball with a heart of gold. Simonischek has such expert delivery, and there's always a sly smile on his face that conveys Winfried's devilish charm with delicious simplicity. I loved this character, and although his chemistry with Huller is great, Simonischek's solo scenes are even funnier.
In a way, Toni Erdmann feels like a much smarter foreign version of a Judd Apatow movie, a family comedy with some serious bite. The Apatow comparison feels especially apt simply because of the length, which can grow tiresome sometimes. I understand why director Maren Ade felt that the movie needed to be nearly three hours long, but there are a few stretches that I can easily see being cut out. It's an excellent film in its current state, yet with some additional conciseness, I feel like this film would be even better. To be quite honest, that's my only real complaint about this film, as there's simply so much to adore. Since Toni Erdmann is a comedy, I feel like it's easy to discount how ambitious and unique this movie is. Basically, Ade has created an absurdist situational opus, a whirlwind blend of family dynamics, workaholicism, and cultural values. I've never seen anything like it before.
But most importantly, it is devastatingly funny, especially as the film reaches its climax. Toni Erdmann features some big laughs during the early goings, but Ade ratchets the hilarity up to a whole different level at the end. Just as you think that the film's momentum might be winding down, Ade slams you with one gut-busting sequence after another. There's a karaoke scene that caused my audience to spontaneously burst into applause, the arrival of a mystical furry creature of some sorts, and a nude scene that might just be the funniest sequence of the year so far. It's a brilliant, hysterical, and deeply human conclusion to a movie that blends so many emotions together successfully for 162 minutes. It's always important for a film to begin well, but if Toni Erdmann serves as a testament to anything, it's the power of a good ending.
Toni Erdmann surely won't be for everyone's taste, but for many film fans, Ade's critically acclaimed film will be extremely satisfying. It's funny, raunchy, touching, and sweet in equal measure, dominated by stellar performances, and it reaches a killer climatic point that will have you in stitches. But most importantly, I think that Toni Erdmann will make audiences reflect on their attitudes toward the world. The film did this for me, and I have a feeling that it will do so for others as well. Are we all just taking things too seriously all the time? Do we need to lighten up? I think so. In the end, we could all learn a thing or two from Toni Erdmann.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.4/10)
Image Credits: Indiewire, Flickering Myth, The Playlist