Tuesday 31 January 2017

Dad jokes: "Toni Erdmann"

In the German writer-director Maren Ade's 2003 debut The Forest for the Trees, a lonely young teacher proved so desperate to fit in, make friends and make a success of herself that she went ever so slightly doolally. Watching on, those of us in the audience could see this woman needed an intervention of some sort: someone or something to reroute her thoughts, calm her frenzied neuroses, ease her solitude. Ade's new comedy Toni Erdmann presents us with precisely the man for that job. We first see Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a white-haired sexagenarian who resembles a cross between James Brolin and Kenny Rogers, as he's opening the door of his home in the Rhine to a parcel courier. The parcel has been addressed to one Toni Erdmann, who Winfried insists is the brother who lives with him, a mailbomber recently sprung from prison ("Hold on, I'll go get him"). After several seconds of staring at the back of the now understandably perturbed courier's neck, this Toni appears on the doorstep - and it might take you (as it takes the courier) a minute to twig, but Toni is Winfried, stripped to the waist and adorned with fright wig and false teeth. 

Winfried, it transpires, is a prankster - a survivor of Ken Kesey's generation - and Toni his greatest creation yet: an agent of chaos and change at a time of ingrained social conservatism, whose only goal - though there may be no goal more important in this day and age - is to put a smile on people's faces. Once the gag becomes apparent, the courier loosens up; we do, too. Yet Winfried faces a greater challenge - a tougher crowd, if you will - in the form of his unsmiling daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a no-nonsense executive in the oil industry who simply has no time for messing around, away as she is on business most of her while. Unable to get any quality face time with his girl - and finding even his occasional phone calls diverted to voicemail - Winfried decides to take action; and so he turns up, wig in his carry-on bag and false teeth in his top pocket, in Bucharest, location of his girl's latest business trip, providing exactly that intervention that Ade's earlier heroine, tragically, never received.

A big part of the joke of this new film is that its action plays out in much the same realist key as Ade's previous work: it's like watching a Ken Loach movie into which has been inserted a complete wild card of a character. Ade insists upon the absurdity inherent in our world of branding and corporate-speak ("A concept makes no sense without a client"); unless that threatened Brexit film comes to fruition, this will almost certainly be the only screen comedy you'll see this year to discuss outsourcing and namecheck Herman van Rompuy. What Ade's getting at, however, is deeply serious: the schism capitalism has opened up between one generation, for whom the system worked, and the next, for whom it hasn't. Toni Erdmann's twist is that it's young Ines who, in her need to get ahead, appears by far the more uptight of the two main characters: so much so that she storms out of a hotel massage that fails to meet her rigorous demands ("I'm not paying €100 to be petted").

Old Winfried, on the other hand, represents all those qualities we may be at risk of losing in our time-is-money economy: play, joy, mucking around for the sake of mucking around. In old age, Ade spies a return to childhood, the liberation that follows from not caring what others think and not doing what others tell you to do. This provides the film with a constant, ready-made conflict between father and daughter, heightened when Winfried pops Toni's gnashers in during a networking event and clears the room, then again once he decides it would be a tremendous wheeze to handcuff himself to Ines. (Of course, he loses the key.) Yet it plays to us as a curative and a positive: being around her old man relaxes her, and as the scale of his jokes and imposture broadens, he piques her sincere interest, sets her wondering as to what he's up to, takes her mind off the myriad strains and stresses of corporate life. He sets her to singing; he gets her laid, which seems a near-impossibility at the film's start.

That Toni Erdmann seems likely to stand as the year's most human comedy is down to Ade's close-up, hands-on work with her performers. Hüller, that cherishable German midpoint between Michelle Williams and Chloe from 24, senses entirely that terrible tizz and tangle those of us working for a living feel obliged to get ourselves in nowadays; she bears down with a most Teutonic frown until Ines becomes such a pressure cooker her very toenails pop off. Yet the pleasure here comes from watching her gradually letting her guard down: her corpsing is something special, and she makes a particular triumph out of a final-reel bout of physical comedy involving a too-tight evening dress. Simonischek, though at times indistinguishable from a sheepdog, succeeds in making Toni a character in his own right, while never losing sight of the touching paternal impulses that spawned him: Winfried sees his child is unhappy, and sets out to make her life better, and happier.

True to life, that process is an erratic one, yet Ade's pacing is peerless: she allows for long stretches of trying corporate chatter that demonstrate exactly what Toni's up against - but these also set us to longing for this oddball to burst through the conference room doors and rescue our heroine, or at least toss in a stink bomb. This may be the first 162-minute movie in history to provide a philosophical justification for its running time: as Winfried would doubtless appreciate, it takes us away from the world and allows us to settle in and unwind before sending us out with a broad, beaming grin on our face. Even so, you can find Toni Erdmann in a nutshell in a snatch of poetry we overhear at a leaving service for the headmaster of the school at which Winfried volunteers - a pithy oneliner, as valuable as any of the film's sight gags and setpieces, which Ade surely wants us to mull over and take to heart: "How glorious it is to do nothing, and then to take a break."

Toni Erdmann opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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