HENRY JAMES’S DESCRIPTION of certain doorstop-size nineteenth-century novels—the “large, loose, baggy monster”—applies pretty well to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a downbeat comic study of a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship that comes in a bit short of the three-hour mark, and which has as its keystone gag an actual large, loose, baggy monster.
Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a thirtysomething German professional adrift in professional stasis despite her monomaniacal focus on climbing the corporate ladder at the backwater Romanian branch of a consultancy firm. Her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a divorced former children’s music teacher who upends Ines’s minutely scheduled existence when he shambles into the immaculate, impersonal extended-stay apartment she occupies in Bucharest, a set-up for rootless corporate cosmopolitans that’s much the same from San Diego to Singapore—where she is hoping to be transferred, though a promotion alone hardly seems likely to clear up the pall of low-level depression hanging over her.
When Winfried first appears, an incorrigible prankster who shows up to a family gathering in zombie makeup and plastic novelty teeth, it’s no stretch to imagine how his pupils must have adored him, and how he must have been an impossible husband. Hüller’s finely shaded performance reflects a bit of both attitudes—the residual tenderness of the once doted-over little girl for whom this shameless oaf was once the center of the world, and the wariness of the career woman who has had to put aside childish things (and most everything else) to serve her company. Brushing off her father, however, proves a challenge. After Ines sends him packing back to Germany, Winfried reemerges wearing the hillbilly chompers and a frazzled fright wig, now posing as a character named Toni Erdmann—either a life coach or an ambassador, depending on who he’s talking to—so that he can penetrate the largely expatriate white-collar circle in which his daughter travels, with the ostensible aim of putting a little mirth back into her chartered, tight-assed life.
Since competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this May, Toni Erdmann, the forty-year-old Ade’s third feature and first since 2009’s Everyone Else, has seen its reputation steadily snowball, finally topping year-end polls at Cahiers du cinema, Film Comment, and this publication, and earning a gushing review in today’s New York Times. Without wishing to suggest that Toni Erdmann’s many admirers are being disingenuous in their enthusiasm, any such perfect confluence of opinion must benefit from extenuating factors. For starters, Ade’s film, which emerged from a reportedly anarchic, improv-heavy production process with well-balanced proportions of the familiar and the strange, has inspired excitement as one whose appeal might breach the borders of the foreign-language art-house ghetto.
The basic plot formula—a shaggy-dog outsider lets some air into a stale bourgeois life—is a familiar staple from Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) to Paul Mazursky’s yuppie Los Angelino remake Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), though the film that I thought of most during Ade’s was the (significantly funnier) 2012 Adam Sandler vehicle That’s My Boy. Toni Erdmann does have a couple of scenes that are designed to be showstoppers: One in which “Toni” goads Ines into performing a gut-wrenching, emotional rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” for an audience of strangers; another where Ines, driven to the brink of breakdown, answers the door to coworkers stark naked. At the same time, there is much about Toni Erdmann that would be out of place at the multiplex: the generous runtime, say, or Patrick Orth’s cinematography, which offers an unprettified vision of the corporate-park world and the pallid men and women who inhabit it. (The movie also contains an in-your-face feel-bad sex scene, but given the degree to which Judd Apatow and associates have made this their provenance, I’m hesitant to admit it as evidence of “otherness.”)
Finally, Ade’s film ends on a note of painful ambivalence—Ines is reconciled to her identity as her father’s daughter, but the last glimpse of her face reflects a weary understanding that this alone is not enough, that rapprochement across generation and gender can only go so far, that to imitate her father’s carefree approach is not really an option any more than it would be possible for her to drop out of the business world and relaunch herself as a professional torch singer. The best of intentions is at best palliative: Winfried/Toni gamely tries to mix with the common Bucharesters, with mixed results, while the impersonal “downsizing” practiced by Ines and her company continues undeterred. Here again Toni Erdmann achieves maximum topicality. The world in which the film is set—of borderless business and quibbles over outsourcing where layoffs are just a number with no inconvenient human analog—feeds into a very of-the-moment conversation about the seven-day, 168-hour work week and so-called neoliberal globalism whose unpopularity has been used for political capital by both right and left.
It is in its depiction of this milieu, however, Toni Erdmann shows a tendency to oversimplify that marks it as a more hidebound work than it first appears. Cinema classically has at least been interested in the process of blue-collar work, but has too often been indifferent to representing the business world in any manner other than how someone of the “creative class” imagines that they would respond to it—that is, as a terrible imposition and smothering restriction, an image that comes across most clearly in the film’s climactic scene, where Ines struggles to free herself from the straightjacket of a vacuum-sealed dress. (That representatives of the art film, like any arts economy largely reliant on title inheritance, chattel labor, and other suspect sources of financing, regularly condescend to the spiritual impoverishment of the cubicle caste is a piquant irony.) Even if you happen to sympathize with the grim feeling that Toni Erdmann appears to have about twenty-first century life, there’s a real paucity of empathetic imagination in the gaggle of caricatures, divided between white-collar grotesques and Decent Common Folk, that Ade provides for Ines and Winfried to interface with—and there’s something suspect about a 162-minute movie that only finds time to develop two characters in the round.
“At least three good scenes and no bad ones” goes the bromide attributed to Howard Hawks––a director who had a penchant for long, rambling comedies––as his recipe for success. My scorecard for Toni Erdmann reads a couple memorable bits and a vast, undifferentiated middle. That Ade’s film doesn’t seem to be working for horselaughs most of the time isn’t a problem in itself. There are plenty of great screen comedies that I’ve watched stone-faced: Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971) or Jerry Lewis’s Cracking Up (1983). (As Jean-Luc Godard said of Lewis, “Even when he’s not funny, he’s funny.”) But Toni Erdmann, pitting a lovable sad clown ex-hippie against straw-man capitalists, forestalls the invitation to audience reflection that creates real queasy stick-in-your-throat laughter. Lacking anything to disturb its basic binary or to put a complacent viewer momentarily on their back foot, there’s little here that lifts the ongoing game of farcical imposture and father-daughter sparring above briskly repetitive actors’ exercises. When it’s not funny, it’s not much.
Toni Erdmann opens Sunday, December 25, at Film Forum in New York.