* (out of 4)
There are exactly two good moments in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a new German “comedy” about a father named Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and his relationship with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). The first comes after Winfried has deeply embarrassed Ines in front of a CEO (Michael Wittenborn) she’s trying to impress; as he boards a taxi for the airport, shamed by Ines into returning home, she waves to him from a balcony and abruptly bursts into tears. The second comes near the very end, when Ines gives her father a sudden embrace after running away from her birthday party. Both of these moments are unexpected and genuine: they reveal an affectionate side to Ines that we barely see elsewhere.
Unfortunately, these moments prove to be anomalies in a movie that’s otherwise most charitably described as dry, uninspired, unfunny, and wayyyyy too long – the fact that Ines is usually difficult to connect with is just the tip of the iceberg. Start from the basic plot. Winfried is an old man who feels lonely. (Cue a bunch of shots of him gazing forlornly at someone or something.) Ines is a busy, “I don’t have time for anything but my career” saleswoman, Up in the Air’s Anna Kendrick on steroids. Winfried tries to visit her at work, but Ines flips him off. Repeat that last part over and over for another 2.5 hours, and you finally get to the movie’s big takeaway message. “You’re always trying to do this and do that,” says Winfried to Ines. “But life is just passing by.” YOLO has never looked more shockingly profound.
In fairness, Ade would say that this brief description barely touches on the specific ways the story is developed. She’d be right – but not in a good way. It turns out that Winfried has a very peculiar way of visiting his daughter at work. He dons a wig, puts on a set of fake teeth, and barges into gatherings by advertising himself as either a German ambassador or a “life coach”; the title of the movie comes from the name he gives this alter ego. Yet while this gag might make you laugh the first couple of times, you find yourself eventually growing tired of watching a perverted 60-year old constantly act like an overlarge infant. Ade seeks to make Erdmann into a living, breathing critique of the rigidity of bourgeois life à la Luis Buñuel, but she never actually says much beyond a vague and repetitive “rich people and society’s customs are all stupid.” Even the supposed “comedic highlight” of the movie – at her birthday party, Ines asks everyone to go nude – turns out to be an umpteenth beating of this same dead horse.
Yet these painfully empty antics aren’t even the worst part of the movie. The bulk of its running time comes from the prolonged sequences in between Toni’s various gags – namely, the parts devoted to depicting Ines at her job. There’s talk of outsourcing, shareholders, collaborating with Dude #1 instead of Dude #2…but leaving aside the fact that we never quite get what exactly is being negotiated with whom, what’s the point? The multinational nature of Ines’ job – she works in Romania and spends most of her work day speaking in perfect business English – has led some to suggest the movie is offering an oblique commentary on the current econo-political dynamics in the European Union. Yet aside from one scene where a Romanian worker gets fired because his boss is eager to impress his German clients, precious little in the aimless and lumbering way the movie is presented ever goes beyond a basic, general retread of simplistic “corporate life is super-impersonal and shallow” clichés. The only “special” thing that Ade contributes to this trope is the occasional shot of Ines grimly staring into space – a clumsy endeavor to sprinkle in bits of what’s-the-meaning-of-my-life nihilism, in other words, that’s simply too blatant to resonate. Beneath that intimidating length, there just ain’t all that much to see.
The movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote that “the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product,’ finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.” She was exaggerating, but her underlying argument – that dumb franchise sequels aren’t the only movies that can be junk – had merit. And a film like Toni Erdmann is a reminder that conditions haven’t gotten much better since she wrote those words well over 50 years ago. Some movies leave you crying or laughing, others thinking, still others a combination of all three. With this one, I left feeling nothing but a deep sense of anger that movie theaters don’t give ticket refunds for time wasted.
Toni Erdmann (2016)
Country: Germany. Dialogue in German, Romanian, and English.
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller
Running Time: 162 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use.”
Produced by: Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Michael Merkt
Written & Directed by: Maren Ade