Toni Erdmann, Marvelous Foreign-Language Oscar Nom, Opens Friday at Cedar Lee

click to enlarge Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann.
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann.
Toni Erdmann, an Oscar-nominated German film about a no-nonsense businesswoman and her prankster father, premiered at Cannes in 2016 and has been generating buzz ever since. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.

Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) is an overworked business consultant who is currently working through the biggest project of her career. Her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a happy-go-lucky music teacher who loves play-acting as different characters to pull off practical jokes. Winfried spontaneously visits Ines in an attempt to repair their relationship, and after he fails to help her, he transforms himself into the bumbling life coach ‘Toni Erdmann’ in order to infiltrate his daughter’s professional life.

The film presents a familiar, almost cliché situation — Ines is way too serious about her work and her life, rebelling against her father’s whimsy. At first, it seems that Ines just needs to lighten up, and that her father has come to bring carefree cheer and childlike wonder back into her life. The film runs deeper than the clichés, though, and explores a nice ambiguity about which character is really the one in need of repair. The stellar acting from Hüller and Simonischek brings a dimensionality to the two characters that, in lesser hands, could have ended up being tropes.

The film’s subtext plays with issues of gender equality in the workplace and modern fears of globalization. In addition to dealing with the emergence of her father’s ‘Toni’, Ines has to navigate the subtleties of being a high-powered female in various rooms full of chauvinist men. Director Maren Ade slips these
microagressions into scenes the same way that they might be dropped into a casual conversation.

Tonally, the film takes sharp turns and moves unpredictably. A dramatic scene may turn comic in an instant, or vice versa. Large portions of the film leave the viewer somewhat disoriented or unprepared for what’s going to happen next. There’s a certain thrill in watching a movie that can surprise at each turn, though some scenes can be puzzling. The film’s comedy is often unexpected and usually compounds upon its own awkwardness.

Despite having elements of comedy, it’s one of the more realistic films I’ve seen during this Oscar season. Refreshingly, it does not resolve neatly or suggest that either character has had a personal epiphany. There are no wild narrative shifts or big plot twists. There are some notable scenes involving a Whitney Houston song and a strange Bulgarian folk costume, but otherwise, the film feels very true to life.

Though it’s nearly three hours long, the length allows the film to breathe, alternately manic and melancholy. In a shorter movie, the complexity of the characters would not emerge in quite the same way. Ultimately, it’s a touching piece that realistically portrays the strains of dealing with family in the midst of forging one’s own life, and one of the best films from the Oscar pool.
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