Susan Granger’s review of “Toni Erdmann” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Going into the Oscar Foreign Language race as an overwhelming favorite, German filmmaker Maren Ade’s poignant comedic-drama revolves around a practical-joking father who tries to reconnect with his uptight daughter by creating an outrageous alter-ego.
Within that context, Ade satirically tackles feminism, workplace sexism, international capitalism, and German arrogance within the European Union.
After his beloved dog dies, divorced, middle-aged music teacher Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) feels totally lost. So he tries to reconnect with his only child – daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) – who is obsessive about her executive consulting work in Romania.
When Winifred, an eccentric prankster, turns up, unannounced, in Bucharest for the weekend, Ines is curt and obviously annoyed. “Are you really human?” he finally inquires.
Refusing to give up, free-spirited Winifred defiantly becomes an abrasive con-man, a “management coach” named Toni Erdmann, creating chaos in Ines’ high-pressure business life.
“It’s very complicated,” he admits.
The most memorable moments occur when Ines performs Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in the middle of an Orthodox egg-painting party, followed by doffing her too-tight cocktail dress for an impromptu, existential, all-nude “team-building” birthday brunch.
After spending more than two years researching and writing, director Maren Ade notes: “The directing part is more about making the story more rich and complicated in its subtext.”
“I am interested in the drama of daily life, making the banal moments as dramatic as possible,” Ade goes on. “I like to shoot lots of variations on that so that, when I am at the editing table, I can continue to ‘write’ in a way.”
For that reason, it’s not surprising that “Toni Erdmann” runs nearly three hours – and the slow-building, character-establishing pace tests the audience’s patience.
FYI: Three-time Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson Is determined to come out of semi-retirement to star in an English-language remake – with Kristin Wiig as his long-suffering daughter.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Toni Erdmann” teases with an unpredictable, exuberant 8. It’s wildly rebellious and absurdly redemptive.