There is nothing more infuriating for movie lovers than seeing a film gain unanimous critical acclaim on festivals, fuelled by hype for months (sometimes close to a whole year) before general audiences actually get a chance to see it. Toni Erdmann has boasted critical plaudits that have left every serious lover of cinema salivating; it became the most critically acclaimed film in the history of Cannes Film Festival shortly after its premiere, with a widespread backlash against the festival jury when they failed to recognise it.
If that wasn’t enough, in August (a mere three months after it was shown to the world for the first time), the BBC listed it on their poll of the best films of the 21st Century. Without a doubt, Toni Erdmann was a groundbreaking work of tragicomic genius waiting to be discovered. Witnessing the film for the first time under fresh eyes, as the audience at Cannes did, was likely a completely different experience to finally seeing it after months of relentless hype. To say it is a resounding disappointment would be something of an understatement – it possesses a small handful of show-stopping sequences that give the allusion of an arthouse crowd-pleaser, yet these laughs are spread too thin across an overlong and plainly dull narrative.
A Victim of its own Hype
Peter Simonischek stars in the lead role as Winfred, an elderly music teacher with a love for elaborate practical jokes – to such an extent he can show up at the house of his ex-wife dressed as a corpse and nobody will blink twice. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), is a semi-successful business consultant in Bucharest, but as Winfred sees her life entirely consumed by her profession, he decides to go to Romania and spend some quality time with her. He proves to be a nuisance and leaves – only to return a day later as Toni Erdmann, with a Tommy Wiseau wig and a hideous set of fake teeth, a “life coach” who is inexplicably taken at face value by everybody other than his daughter, tiring of his invasive ridiculousness.
The premise of Toni Erdmann is undeniably fantastic and it does occasionally live up to its potential, whenever writer/director Maren Ade pursues the central aim of finding laughs by getting a robotic business woman to enjoy the kooky spontaneity that her father’s presence brings. You can’t deny the inspirational positivity of Ade’s message – that life is too short to be consumed by dull concerns and to ignore the joyous moments of everyday life.
Nor can you deny the emotionally complex way she manages to explore these themes, asking us at what cost should we accept a “living in the moment” mentality, when confronted with a presence quite like that of Winfred? There is an entirely fruitful commentary on mental illness too, explored via these two very different (yet equally broken) central characters that often feels so understated, it may have only appeared by accident.
But to praise a movie for its message, as opposed to the story it tells, is the sort of damning with faint praise philosophy critics usually reserve for fluffy children’s movies. There is a story with immense emotional depth within Toni Erdmann, but the movie is so frequently dull, when the moments of comedy arrive they can feel somewhat cynical. It is an allusive crowd-pleaser – the central narrative is so disinteresting, that whenever anything mildly amusing happens (including a central Whitney Houston karaoke sequence that led to a mid-film standing ovation at Cannes), the film feels better than it actually is as a result.
Overlong and devoid of laughs
The narrative I described above is a secondary concern to Maren Ade, who spends a ridiculously large amount of time (I would estimate about 90 minutes of a 162 minute run-time) examining the business meetings that Ines attends, as well as the problems that have arisen with securing an important new client. Most films would focus on this for roughly 5-10 minutes, in order to establish that Ines takes her profession way too seriously and has become somewhat “robotic” as a result.
Ade’s commitment to realism and grounding this ridiculousness in a recognisable reality has ensured that for a long period of its running time, this is more dull than funny – even when Erdmann appears at her later business meetings and travels to contractors, he isn’t even a disruptive presence. Entire scenes play out with him in the foreground, yet no laughs, as we are being asked to concentrate on the utterly dull narrative stakes of whether or not Ines will secure this contract. Even as Winfred sees how miserable Ines is with her life, we are only seeing this documented in the least cinematic and least narratively engaging manner possible.
It is this central realism that makes the quirky, crowd-pleasing aspects of the film even more inexplicable. They don’t hold up well to scrutiny, making the unanimous acclaim all the more unfathomable. Are we supposed to believe that firstly, people would just accept Toni Erdmann at face value and allow him access to business meetings without question? Are we supposed to accept he would have been able to enter secure office spaces alone, or that he would be able to register and turn up for prestigious events with nothing more than a hastily made business card?
You could argue these aspects of whimsy aren’t supposed to be taken at face value – but after spending so long grounding her film in reality, the actions of this character don’t feel remotely plausible. Even the showstopping karaoke scene feels entirely irrelevant and makes no sense within the context of the film, only there to illustrate that Ines is coming out of her shell. Even then, that was illustrated earlier during a sequence of cake eating that aims to surpass There’s Something About Mary and American Pie for visual gross out humour – a scene which veers the film’s tone way off course, for the sake of a broad gag.
A small handful of critics have suggested that the central premise of Toni Erdmann is the kind of lowbrow shtick that Adam Sandler regularly sharts out into the world, only executed to a higher standard. What Sandler movies they have been watching is a mystery, as this is an unnecessarily lengthy, slow paced and frequently dull effort that is only partially rescued by two commendable lead performances and a small handful of genuinely chuckle-worthy scenes. Please, don’t believe the hype.
Have you seen Toni Erdmann? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Toni Erdmann is released in the US on December 25 and in the UK on February 3. All international release dates can be found here.
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