Toni Erdmann a Funny Film? Nope!!!


Directed by Maren Ade
Soda Pictures, 162 minutes, R (graphic sex, nudity, language)
In German, English, Romanian (with subtitles)

Sight and Sound, the London Critics Circle, the European Film Academy, and jurors at festivals in Brussels, Denver, Toronto, and Vancouver declared Toni Erdmann the best film of 2016. 92% of critics posting to Rotten Tomatoes rated it highly. Count me among the proud 8% who hated it—and that's not too strong of a word. I am baffled as to why such an unfunny mess has been so highly praised.

Let me ask this: If you had a family member whose idea of hilarity was to carry a set of fake buck teeth in his shirt pocket and plop them in every time you looked away, how often would this be funny? What if this was his entire shtick? How soon until he was expunged from your dinner guest list and you were "too busy" to visit him? Meet Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonisckek), a part-time elementary school music teacher with a taste for the macabre, schlock, and embarrassing humor. Perhaps he's an old hippie or a wannabe Goth, but probably he's just odd. Not surprisingly, he's divorced and his lukewarm friends see him as harmless, but wearisome. He's also estranged from Ines (Sandra Hüller), his 30s-something daughter, who is his polar opposite: heart-attack serious, ambitious, and the lead team member of a business consulting firm that advises German companies how to manage takeovers in poorer European Union countries, outsource the work, and slash payroll. A real sweetheart! She's currently posted in Bucharest, where she's courting a contract from Henneberg, a high-powered oil CEO.

On impulse, Winfried flies to Bucharest in hopes of reconciling with Ines. She's 'round-the-clock busy, he's an embarrassment, and their rapprochement is an epic failure. Ines is in the process of telling associates how relieved she is that he has left, only to find him eavesdropping at the next table, but wearing his fake teeth, a wig, a new suit, and sporting the assumed name of Toni Erdmann. If we believe the premise of this "comedy-drama," as it's billed, Toni manages to amuse and charm Henneberg, which suddenly makes him an unwanted but essential part of Ines' hopes to land the consulting contract. With that and a little flirtation with women who find him odd enough to be entertaining, he becomes an accomplice in economic schemes that he philosophically opposes.

We learn that Ines is ruthless, but deeply unhappy—her life filled with non-stop work, playing flunky for spoiled clients, feigning agreement with everything they say, and having kinky sex with one of her team members. She wants it all, but has no clue what "it" actually might be. Will daddy's goofiness help her take stock and reboot? In case you still want to see this film—and you shouldn't—let me add that some of the plot devices involve a side trip through Romanian poverty and potties, a naked party, crashing an Easter dinner, donning a monster costume—a Bulgarian kakeri if you're keeping score—and coerced singing of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All." Look up the word "broad" and apply liberally.

Maybe I'm a snob, but I found this film's humor to be roughly on par with the laughs I rack up sorting my sock drawer. On top of everything else, it checks in at a glacially paced 162 minutes, much of it filled with trips to Winfried/Toni's shirt pocket. I think we are also supposed to draw lessons about haves and have-nots in the European Union. Perhaps Winifred and Toni are stand-ins for Germany's bifurcated soul—the serious versus the lighthearted, former West versus former East, materialist versus humane…. Maybe we're even meant to ponder whether Germany abandoned military nationalism in favor of economic imperialism. If you will, this film lacks the teeth for such weighty subjects. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, I stumbled upon this distressing news: A Hollywood remake is under consideration that would star Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. I'd rather go to the dentist!

Rob Weir

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