Though its greatness is stunted by its excessive length and it doesn’t quite manage to live up to that rapturous Cannes reception – as so few films ever do – Maren Ade’s (The Forest for the Trees, Everyone Else) third feature is a largely entertaining comic drama, mining some distinctly German absurdism while driven forth by two terrific central performances.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is a serious, committed businesswoman who is forced to contend with the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her eccentric practical joker father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek). Winfried forcefully inserts himself into both Ines’ personal and professional life by assuming a goofy disguise and alias, Toni Erdmann, resulting in a number of hilariously awkward situations for his daughter.
Toni Erdmann is a 162-minute comedy of (bad) manners, and the run-time alone will probably either deter or intrigue audiences more. A sure patience is required as Conradi is in no hurry to rush through the set-up, but this also does a fine job building suspense until the inevitable moment where Winfried first shows up wearing his absurd disguise, including a scruffy wig and buck teeth.
The humour is dry for sure, primarily working the art of juxtaposition, as the peculiar appearance of “Mr. Erdmann” is placed next to the straight-laced nature of Ines’ business meetings. Irony is subsequently doled out liberally, flipping the expected on its head and making Winfried an exceptionally likable character in all of his ridiculousness.
Conradi has a firm enough handle on tone that the film is able to brace itself rather well between silliness and grounded drama. There’s an extended nude scene, for instance, which won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who’s seen it, both for its daftness and its clever building of comic tension.
The performances, though, are the real reason to see the movie; Simonischek is a terrific comic talent and a riot every time he shows up, but as his deadpan screen partner, Hüller has to carry the movie by appearing in practically every scene, and is magnificently exasperated throughout.
While it ultimately doesn’t add up to an experience that justifies the length or the over-eager praise, Toni Erdmann is nevertheless a singular comic drama with immaculate tonal balance and strong performances.
Toni Erdmann is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas February 3rd, 2017