Toni Erdmann movie full length review - Old formula... refreshing film.
How could they make such a good film out of "Toni Erdmann"?
The premise seems worn-out: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a retired music teacher, assumes the fake identity of Toni Erdmann by putting on grotesque fake teeth whenever he feels like horsing around with people, which is quite often. He comes to visit his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a tough businesswoman who lives in Bucharest, and messes up her life. The trailer gave reason to expect a movie with more instances of Fremdschämen - external shame - than comedy. And I took it for granted that all this would lead to a "heartwarming" change of the daughter and her discovering what "living" really means.
But this comedy isn't about punchlines, and this tragedy isn't about payoffs. The actors are too clever to make caricatures out of their characters. Sandra Hüller in particular deserves praise for keeping a shade of humanity in the early scenes, and it actually makes her more creepy. Is her tolerably friendly behavior towards her father just as phoney as her smiles in business sessions? And writer-director Maria Ade shows us so much from the lives of her characters and takes the scenes to such lengths that cheap triumphs become impossible. Toni interferes in Ines' life when he tells tall tales to her clients or even introduces himself as the "German ambassador in Romania"; but ultimately, he doesn't overthrow, he only irritates. When Ines hosts a nude party at the end, it would play out like an act of liberation in any other film. Here, the most drastic consequence is a change of workplace: from one consulting company to the next.
No, Toni Erdmann cannot change the cold business world, which is a tragedy. But he remains stubborn and resistant in this world, and that is a blessing. Because the film takes time (162 minutes) to make you care for these characters and to introduce believable (if not realistic) situations, they provide some humor again. When Toni makes a slick businessman believe that he's hired a replacement daughter because his real child is too busy to spend time with him, you laugh that you may not cry.
Globalization is an important theme in "Toni Erdmann". Economic issues are addressed ("outsourcing"), but in the end the movie has more to say about cultural and societal alienation. Large parts of the dialogue are held in English even though, if I remember correctly, no native English speakers turn up; this adds to the shallowness of conversations. One can talk about business deals, bars and shopping facilities this way, but after a while, there may not be anything more to care about. The Romanians, by the way, never come off as stereotyped, whether it's an impulsive factory owner or a simple worker. For some reason, it is an absolute rarity in films - in Hollywood and elsewhere - to portray foreigners as human beings if they're not among the leads, but this is one of those instances.
The wisest films tend to ask questions instead of giving answers. Toni asks Ines the old, clichéd question, "Do you actually find the time to live?" She responds, "What is living?" Toni doesn't know. He tries to live his own way, but he can't tell others what to do, and the ending doesn't show us a revolution. Maria Ade knows what Brecht knew when he wrote,
"With consternation / We see the curtain closed, the plot unended. / In your opinion then, what's to be done?"