Toni Erdmann – The screwballs and everyone else

written by Andreea Mihalcea

Toni Erdmann

Everyone has their own way of dealing with existential tedium and loneliness. The all-so-likeable classical Hollywood 30’s screwball characters’ way of freeing themselves from all that was by laughing at it full-heartedly and by playing pretense. They weren’t doing it so as to escape reality, as it might look on the surface, but so they could actually enjoy life at its fullest. German director/scriptwriter Maren Ade certainly seems no stranger to that specific sensibility, considering how wittily she’s working around the idea of therapeutic roleplaying in this year’s Cannes sensation, Toni Erdmann, but also in her previous feature, Everyone Else (2009), for that matter. What’s more, fundamental screwball strategies reach, in her hands, universal humanist proportions.

Bottom-line, beautiful loser Winifried (Peter Simonischek) is trying to make his visibly unhappy and estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) smile again. So, he comes up with a one of a kind birthday present – the facetious "Toni Erdmann" alter-ego. His deliberately tawdry and inadequate social skills are supposed to magically make all the dead-on-the-inside arrogant smucks surrounding her disappear. But, as screwball comedies have taught us, although the goofball of the duo is constantly challenging conservative values, it still takes two to tango. Ines, too, has to play the game for her father’s plan to work. What’s at stake here is attaining and prolonging those rare moments when they find themselves in tune, both willing to tell the joke, as it were, and clown around as accomplices, that may or may not be the key for this rather belated bridging of the gap.

Winifried’s surprise visit to Bucharest, where Ines is currently working as a management consultant, triggers a long yet delightful series of absurd gags. Ade’s script, blending comedy and drama, turns each minute spent together by this alienated father-daughter duo into an opportunity for unraveling cascading cracks in Ines’ clockwork-planned life. Her character study relies on using caricature and farce tropes as a means of questioning to what extent abiding generally considered respectable social standard risks jeopardizing personal fulfillment. The way Maren Ade is fearlessly tackling narrative clichés and the fact that the two main actors are doing such a convincing job in rendering multiple character layers make Toni Erdmann an easily relatable and popular arthouse movie.

Although the director really knows how to juggle stereotypes in order to uncover deeper human issues, this is not always working in her favor, when it comes to indirectly commenting on a broader social spectrum. This is why, unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that, in regard to portraying Romanian society through a foreigner’s perspective, some of the social observation details are, at times, sketchy and borderline exotic. However, the powerful overall farcical coté of the film and her main focus on personal interaction counterbalance this, perhaps, too sensitive or even inappropriate of a political reading.

The 162 minutes long running time of this "bumpy ride" has at times a repetitious tendency, in terms of subtext discourse, and this might divide its reception. But on the other hand, intense relationships also tend to be like this and I personally feel that this German director deserves to be applauded for each minute of this film, an outstanding tragicomical tour de force.