Toni Erdmann (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Along comes her prankster father…

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In comedy, timing is always important. Not only you have to find the exact right moment to draw maximum laughs from your audiences, but also you have to make it sure that your audiences never see that coming beforehand. In case of German film “Toni Erdmann”, it has a number of nice examples of good comic timing to savor, and it is alternatively funny and poignant thanks to its effortless mix of humor and pathos. Despite its rather long running time (162 minutes), the movie never feels tedious thanks to its steady narrative pacing and rich character details, and the result is a humorous and thoughtful character comedy drama revolving around one interesting father and daughter relationship to observe.

As shown from the opening scene, Toni Erdmann is the comic alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a middle-aged music teacher who frequently attempts silly practical jokes in front of others. He may look plain weird at first, but there is something endearing about his earnest attempts, and it is no wonder that others around him including his ex-wife are not that bothered when he tries his latest prank prompted by a ceremony at his school.

He has a daughter named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is a consultant currently working on a contract extension with an oil company in Bucharest, Romania. She is so busy with her work that she is not relaxed at all even when she comes back to see her family for a while, and Winfried decides to visit his daughter not long after she goes back to Bucharest.

He simply wants to have some time with his daughter, but she is still occupied with her work. She has worked hard for her career advance, but she only finds herself being frustrated with how she is frequently underestimated by her boss as well as her client, and there is an indirectly revealing scene where she and her father attend a reception along with her client. When Ines tries to talk with her client about their business, she is casually dismissed by him and then asked to do a shopping with his wife. In contrast, Winfried is easily accepted by Ines’ client even though he tells an outrageous joke, and he is even asked to join a late drinking meeting.

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Through such small moments like that, the movie patiently establishes its two different main characters during its first act. Even before he leaves for Bucharest, Winfried is already presented as an engaging human character, and we come to accept and like him as we see more of his quirky, easygoing personality. While Ines is surely your average fastidious workaholic, we come to understand and emphasize with her nonetheless as observing the pressure and frustration she feels at her workplace, and we come to learn a lot about her relationship with her father around the end of the first act.

And then the movie goes into a more comic mode as Winfried begins to do something for his daughter during its second act. With his false teeth and black wig, he becomes Tony Erdmann again, and the moment when he ambushes Ines with his disguise is so precisely and effortlessly executed by the director/writer Maren Ade and her performers that I was really caught off guard and then chuckled during that point.

Ines is understandably annoyed and embarrassed, but she lets her father hang around her, and then she finds herself gradually going along with his disguise. At one point, she even takes him to an important business meeting, and that leads to a series of interesting moments which indirectly show how much her work will affect many people once her client accepts her proposal on the outsourcing project of his oil company.

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As Ade’s screenplay leisurely bounces from one moment to another along with Ines and Winfried, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller ably carry the film together. Never looking too silly or goofy, Simonischek brings shaggy charm to his character, and his delightful performance is packed with small nuances and gestures to appreciate. Even when Winfried attempts the most outrageous prank in the movie, we can feel his warm humanity from Simonischek’s acting, and Simonischek is touching especially when Winfried later tells Ines about what motivated him to do all those silly antics in front of her.

On the opposite, Sandra Hüller is equally fabulous as a daughter who comes to learn an important life lesson from her eccentric father. During one of the memorable scenes in the movie, Winfried deliberately pushes Ines to a musical moment which makes her ventilate whatever has been accumulated inside her, and Hüller is simply fantastic with her emotional rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”. We can feel the sense of release from her character during that moment, and we are not so surprised when Ines impulsively decides to do something quite bold in the subsequent sequence. I will not go into details for not spoiling your fun, but I want to tell you that I am more amused now as reflecting on how this sequence is skillfully handled while delivering more surprises and laughs from a seemingly loose but increasingly absurd circumstance, which eventually culminates to a bizarre but undeniably powerful moment.

“Toni Erdmann”, which was selected as Germany’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2017 Academy Awards in last year and will probably be nominated in this week, may demand some patience from you during its first 20 minutes, but it is a rewarding emotional journey on the whole once you go along with its slow rhythm, and you will be moved by its modest but heartfelt last scene. The movie is indeed long, but no good movie is too long, and this is another good example for that.

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