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Film review: 'Toni Erdmann'

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The premise of "Toni Erdmann" -- a practical joke-loving father tries to reconnect with his tightly-wound daughter by adopting a goofy alter ego and insinuating himself into her life -- sounds like the recipe for a broad, over-the-top comedy. But "Erdmann," from writer-director Maren Ade, exists on a wavelength all its own: the film is at turns funny, messy, absurd, sad, and very, very German.

An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film (and the presumed front-runner by many), "Toni Erdmann" follows divorced, aging music teacher Winfried (Peter Simonischek). Recently retired and suffering from the loss of his beloved dog, Winfried is lonely. With time suddenly on his hands, he sets out to mend the other most important relationship in his life, and pays his workaholic daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a surprise visit in Bucharest where she's relocated for her job as a corporate consultant.

Showing up at her office, his attempts at traditional bonding fall flat. Ines finds him exasperating, and not without reason: his incessant jokes and silly pranks would wear on anyone after a while. But when Ines attempts to get him to leave, he remains undeterred. Pretending to obey her wishes, he instead dons his prized fake teeth (always kept in his breast pocket in case of emergency) and returns in disguise, introducing himself as life coach Toni Erdmann.

Naturally the getup doesn't fool Ines for a moment, and the realization that her father is refusing to leave only adds to her discomfort as he proceeds to wedge his way into her various work functions and social engagements. Winfried's constant presence allows him to see sides of his daughter she never wanted, or frankly, wished him to see. Barriers are broken as it also inadvertently reveals aspects of himself which he's managed to keep hidden from her. Cue tears and heartfelt reconciliations.

But the film is never that simple. Clocking in at just under three hours, "Toni Erdmann" forces us to dwell in the mundanity of these people's lives -- every awkward, uncomfortable, and wince-inducing moment of it. As father and daughter negotiate their strained relationship with one another, Ade's script unfolds its layers, and I appreciated that I had no clue where the film might be headed.

Episodic in nature, the film moves from one set piece to another, eventually building to two outrageous sequences (the details of which are best left to be discovered, though one includes a memorable karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All") which shatter the more grounded tone the rest of the film strikes.

Left to observe the daily details of Ines' work, Ade weaves in some biting observations about the many indignities women face in the corporate workplace, and we begin to see how deeply unhappy Ines is in her life and how much she desperately needs something to break her out of her routine. The constant condescension and sexism from her male colleagues is humiliating to Ines, and all the more keenly felt when it occurs in front of her father, even if he happens to be decked out in buck teeth and a fright wig at the time. Worse, they still seem to take him more seriously than they do her.

It's at this point where I admit that I'm not quite as enraptured by "Toni Erdmann" as many other critics. I admired much of it (the brilliant performances of Hüller and Simonischek in particular), but found that it kept me at a distance. While I missed out on the deeply emotional response that so many others have described, I've found myself thinking about the film in the time since seeing it, and it refuses to leave my head. It's like nothing else I've seen before.

An English-language remake of "Toni Erdmann" is already in the works, with Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson announced for the leading roles (I know we're generally not supposed to be down with remakes, but that's pretty spot-on casting). Catering to more American sensibilities, this upcoming version will likely end up being more straightforward and crowd-pleasing, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't be as indescribably weird, rich, or as memorable.

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