Sunday, January 15, 2017

Toni Erdmann: German Giggles

I could not stop laughing during the last half hour of Toni Erdmann. And with a runtime of nearly three hours, it's quite a feat that this film keeps you engaged till the very end. This is one of those foreign films I only discovered because of awards show buzz (it was nominated for a Golden Globe and might nab an Oscar nod for Germany for Best Foreign Film), and I am so glad I gave it a chance. Because it genuinely turned out to be the most absurd and hilarious way to begin my 2017 movie watching.

The movie has a bizarre premise. Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a German man who has a habit of wearing false teeth and wigs to prank people. He generally does this around friends and family, who are used to his eccentricities and take it in their stride. However, when his incredibly uptight daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), visits him during one of her rare breaks from a consuming consulting gig in Romania, he decides she needs some livening up. He hops on a flight and suddenly shows up at her office in Bucharest in a disguise. Calling himself Toni Erdmann, he proceeds to thoroughly horrify her for the duration of the film. I know it sounds bonkers (imagine how you'd feel if your parent appeared out of the ether when you were with colleagues and tried to ingratiate themselves with the crowd while you look on in stupefaction) but it works brilliantly, thanks to Huller's superb performance as the seemingly humorless Ines.

The role of Ines could be thankless, consisting of a woman who has resting bitchface for three hours while all the glory goes to the funny father who's only trying to make his daughter smile. However, this movie is written and directed by a woman, Maren Ade, and it has never been clearer to me why female writers and directors matter. She ensures that Huller's performance is given the utmost respect it deserves - while at first she seems like a pointlessly dull career-hungry woman, she is gradually revealed to be a complex, over-stressed, but fundamentally decent lady, who simply needs a break and the chance to reevaluate her life choices. By the time we get to that epic final half hour, you won't think of Ines the same way ever again.

You might be wondering what happens in those last thirty minutes, given all of my hype. I can't tell you. You can Google it and find out from multiple sources since it's all anyone can talk about, but I believe the payoff is so much sweeter if you have absolutely no idea what's in store. I suppose I should offer some general warning - it involves a great deal of nudity, though none of it sexual (admit it, now you're intrigued about what ''non-sexual" nudity entails, aren't you?) and it is gut-bustingly funny. It is the best reward you can expect for reading subtitles for so long and you will want to re-watch that scene again and again.

Toni Erdmann is that rare thing - a foreign film garnering massive critical acclaim that also happens to be hilarious. If you thought all important German movies are long slogs about the Holocaust, think again. Sometimes they are clever, curious confections that start out by bewildering you and then suddenly become one of the best movies you've seen in the New Year.

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