AFI Fest Review: ‘Toni Erdmann’ is Hilarious in Spurts

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Everyone has a complicated relationship with their parents. There’s a difficult balance between honoring the vision that your parents have for you and establishing yourself as your own individual. The new film from writer-director Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann, tackles this relationship through the dynamic between a professionally driven daughter and a father committed to oddball goofiness. Much like American Honey, Toni Erdmann sees its robust themes diluted by an unnecessary running time, as the film is nearly three hours of light laughs set against the backdrop of a professional and personal conflict that has no business occupying three hours of the audience’s time.

The first time the audience gets acquainted with Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), he’s tormenting a poor deliveryman with his quirky sensibilities, cracking deadpan jokes about mailing bombs. That’s the kind of existence that Winfried is happiest with, bringing out the bizarre in everyday interactions with strangers. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) doesn’t share those same sensibilities. She’s a professionally driven woman working as a consultant for an oil company in Bucharest, Romania. When Winfried’s beloved dog dies of old age, he makes the trip for a surprise visit to his daughter. Not all surprises are entirely welcomed, as she tries to navigate high stakes business meetings with her father inserting his goofy dentures into his mouth at any given moment. Just when she thinks she’s free of him, Winfried takes on the persona of Toni Erdmann, a business coach that wears the exact same suit every day, wild hair flowing and silly grin provided by those frequently used dentures. No matter what she seems to be trying to accomplish, Erdmann is there to subvert her plans with streak of goofiness that drives her between embarrassment and tears.

One of the more interesting themes that runs through Toni Erdmann are the double standards that professional women are held to. Ines is eager to please her bosses and takes on unthankful tasks of helping the boss’ wife shop at the opulent shopping centers of Bucharest. Even more so, her business presentations are held to an extra level of scrutiny than her male counterparts. Much of the credit to the deftness of this role goes to Sandra Hüller, who tries to keep a brave face on during these trying situations. The German actress conveys all of the exacerbation that her character is going through as she tries to juggle romantic relationships, professional nightmares, and bizarre antics of her father.

For as good Hüller is in the role, the situations that the character is placed in often undermine the pacing of Toni Erdmann. I simply can find no reason that this movie runs as long as it does, especially considering that so much of the film seems to be comprised of business jargon about downsizing. It makes for a movie with an amusing start and amusing end with a whole lot of bland business stuff in the middle. The themes of gender-based double standards in the workplace were already plenty driven home and yet Ade’s film continues to hammer this point to less effectiveness as the film lumbers along.

When Toni Erdmann works best is when Peter Simonischek is front and center either as Wilfried or as Toni. There’s a silly heart to this character that tries to overlook his daughter’s struggles and try to lighten the mood with his absurd non seqiturs. But these scenes are so scattered throughout the film, only really reaching their pinnacle towards the film’s conclusion. The hilarious happenings only really start to roll when Ines is put in the uncomfortable situation egged on by her masquerading father and passionately sings Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” to a room full of strangers. This is followed by a wildly bizarre birthday party where a deflated Ines decides that anyone entering her party must be entirely nude. Meanwhile, Wilfried arrives at the party in a massive, hairy suit that resembles more a B-movie monster than anything else.

Toni Erdmann is a movie with a lot to say, but it just doesn’t always know how to say it in the most efficient way. It has a handful of hilarious moments scattered about its ridiculous length, though not enough to warrant mounds of praise upon Ade’s latest film. With just a bit of brevity, Toni Erdmann could’ve been one of the year’s most impressive comedic feats. Instead it’s just an okay movie that over stays its welcome.

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