Film trailers can be misleading. After watching the one for Toni Erdmann you might expect a riotous farce with silly wigs, fart cushions and naked romps in hotel rooms. In fact, this German-Austrian comedy is seriously funny, a snapshot of a father-daughter relationship tinged with melancholy. There are some hilarious and jaw-dropping scenes, but after two and three-quarters hours it is Sandra Hüller’s extraordinary performance that stays in the memory.
Hüller is so unselfconscious in this film that she hardly seems to be acting at all. She goes from controlled to letting it all hang out without losing the plot. Hüller has something of Jennifer Laurence’s understated intensity and looks a bit like her. But Laurence would surely blush if she was called upon to host a spontaneously naked brunch party. And she might also find it hard to stay in character when chasing a monster who looks like Chewbacca on Viagra around a park in her underwear.
When prankster and piano teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) pays a spontaneous visit to his high-flying daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) in Bucharest, he invades her corporate and personal life. Ines is a super-smart business consultant, an ‘animal’ in the boardroom, but she works too hard and is always on her phone.
Her dad’s zany attempts to put some fun back into her life are met with embarrassment and scorn. His wig, sunglasses and false teeth do not work on her, but her colleagues are amused. When he asks whether she is happy, Ines throws it back in his face: ‘do you have plans in life other than slipping fart cushions under people?’
Winfried is a friendly bear of a man with the sadness of a clown behind his disguises. His laidback world of pranks and living-for-the-moment collides with his daughter’s obsessive workload. The film’s comedy arises from this culture-clash, but it is rarely slapstick. German writer-director Maren Ade shows us a father and daughter skirting around each other, awkwardly watchful, fumbling for some kind of connection.
They gradually begin to bond as Winfried’s alter ego, ‘life coach’ Toni Erdmann shows Ines the real Bucharest, the warmth and hospitality of the local Romanians – in contrast to her vacuous world of business meetings, shopping trips, expensive restaurants and nightclubs. Toni is invited to a family party where he plays keyboards, forcing Ines to sing along to Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All, presumably a favourite from her youth. The initially reluctant, cool Ines builds to an impassioned rendition of the song, perhaps struck by the truth of the line ‘learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.’
Sylistically, Toni Erdmann is unvarnished and down-to-earth. Ade uses hand-held cameras to intimate, docu-style effect and there is no score, which means no distraction or manipulation of our responses. What could be irritating or dull becomes utterly absorbing, transformed by naturalistic acting.
If Toni Erdmann picks up the Best Foreign film Oscar this month Hollywood will probably remake it as Tony Nerdman, a brash fam-com with an oddball hero, a fart cushion and a happy ending.