Thursday, January 5, 2017

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[Review] Toni Erdmann (2016)

"She's hardly at home anymore, so I hired a substitute daughter. Now the question is, who pays her." – Winfried Conradi

Out of every great thing happened to the cinema this year: a musical comedy coming from the mind of a young auteur, a dramatic play adaptation helmed by two most respected Hollywood veterans, a neo-western heist-crime tale of loss and love, an empowering French revenge scheme from a rape survivor, to a highly entertaining animated film that speaks highly about a sickening corner of world's society, then there comes this 3-hour-long German-Austrian comedy built of bizarreness and lunacy. It involves a giant furry costume, an awkward naked party, an alter ego with a cheap wig and fake teeth, public farting, and the list goes on. Yet, this seemingly pointless parade of silliness has transformed into something unexpected. A festival darling, a critically acclaimed comedy, and a current top contender for Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film, Toni Erdmann easily has it all to join the best of the year's best. But, with such a high level of idiosyncrasy that's only enticing to certain viewers, could it actually make the cut?

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a piano teacher and a father of one, Ines (Sandra Hüller), whom he doesn't see much because of her busy professional life. After the death of his old dog, he tries to reconnect with her once again. He pays her a surprise visit in Bucharest, but instead, Ines is annoyed by her father's practical jokes involving corny pranks and jabs at her routine lifestyle of meetings and paperwork. Realizing their relationship doesn't work at all, Winfried quits her life only to come back as Toni Erdmann: Winfried's flashy alter ego. Disguised in a tacky suit, weird wig and fake teeth, Toni barges into Ines' work circle, claiming to be her CEO's life coach. As Toni, Winfried doesn't hold back, and Ines meets the challenge. The harder they push, the closer they become. In all the madness, Ines begins to see that her eccentric father deserves a place in her life.

How many times have we ever witnessed practical jokes in films? From today's modern cinema, we've seen those japes in Neighbors and its follow-up Sorority Rising, or we can go back to the 70s, where its horrifying and cruel prank of blood's pig on Carrie White in Carrie still haunts you to sleep. But no other than Toni Edrmann could actually pull it the same way it does. Toni Erdmann's thorough tone is built of chuckling and giggling, but the film itself retains to live up to its potential by playing it right: they go deeper than that. These characters thrive as the humor kicks in, making the laughs essential. Instead of being cherries on top, they are used to create dynamics in every personality, creating frictions and bringing them closer.

It doesn't stop there. The use of its offbeat, quirky humor is simply brilliant. As a way to unearth its core, the quirkiness might not be appealing to some, but writer-director Maren Ade, in the cleverest way possible, manages to maintain its humor down-to-earth, even with such a great amount of eccentricity, the film relates to each viewer rather easily. This impact is a result of Ade's well-written and carefully constructed script. The comedy isn't made for entertainment purposes only, it's the ultimate key to gain its main story arc, as these comical aspects capture the soul and the spirit of the story perfectly. Instead of overshadowing each other, the humor takes a big part in unfolding its dramatic portion, cloaking the anguish, and revealing its one true aim: the heart.

Spanning almost 3 hours of runtime, oddly enough, Toni Erdmann never seems to be overlong. Maren Ade is without a doubt capable of captaining this gem to be a pleasant, flowy ride with just the right beat of pacing. Yes, it's a segmented piece of comedy, but it's never tiring to see these two father and daughter contradict one another: from almost ruining his daughter's chance of a business deal, heating up over firing employees, to a strange naked party involving giant furry costume and well, naked people. In its 3 hour duration, Ade shows her brilliance as she carries out not only an amusing flick but inside: a humane look of a bittersweet family relationship. It demands our patience, and for sure is something easier said than done, but its offer, in the end, is in no way rejectable: a rewarding experience.

As we dive deep down through the story, the camera tightens the mood, building up its relationship to a result that's both delicate and genuine. Gradually, the feeling of attachment is compiled through protagonists' frictions and crossroads in basically anything: a sense of humor, thoughts, to simply the feel of unease towards each other. On paper, not much significance is shown here, but in Ade's cold hands, she successfully shows that a fully realized story is coming from its fundamental core and not its biggest revelation. It's not about creating one defining important moment that affects the whole narrative, but it's coming from those simple things without forgetting their essence: it could be as simple and as absurd as a visit to someone's easter egg dyeing party, or even belting out Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All in full energy. Their dynamic chemistry is after all defined by these pivotal aspects, creating a nuanced, authentic tone throughout the film.

Toni Erdmann incongruously opens with a little scene involving several personas of Conradi's. It's a strange welcome and hilarious introduction to our main protagonist and the film's ambitious concept. Winfried Conradi, in his everyday form, is a music teacher, a divorced father of one, that despite his jocular personality is still an ordinary man. In his ugly cheap wig and obvious fake teeth, he is Toni Erdmann, a life coach and a consultant who is only a disguise to reconnect with his daughter. Not only are his actions hilarious, but also genuinely moving as his doings contribute greatly to the film's quintessence. The line "she's hardly at home anymore, so I hired a substitute daughter," might come across as both the funniest and most sarcastic joke of the year, but at the bottom, it's a call of sorrow revealed in such ingenuity.

Filled with sarcasm and irony, Toni Erdmann also works as a satirical portrait of the idealistic society and the unexpected anomaly against those considered normal. Often against conventions, seeking the perfection and living under pressure, the youth is represented by Ines, a workaholic whose phone becomes her primary need, who is constrained to be super nice around the people she actually loathes, and whose professional achievement becomes her life goal: she's not under anyone's pressure but hers. She chooses to avoid her personal life, seems to misunderstand her father's presence (actually, so do we), but deep down with her father around, she becomes this individual she always resents: an actual person. Her father anyway, is a father who never fulfills what is expected of him. A loving, but a misunderstood person whose persona might appear out of place to some. They both struggle as a person, and while the former tries to escape her routine life, the latter tries to be comprehended, and through Ade's magnificent writing, she underlines both into a true-to-life relationship of theirs.

As a practical joker and a father Winfried Conradi, and as an eccentric alter ego Toni Erdmann, Peter Simonischek brings his A-game. We don't really see this kind of performance really often: a socially awkward who is glowing in his charisma and sense of humor. While the script deliberately provides multidimensional causes behind his every action, he manages to accomplish something larger-than-life, a believable with often moving result. Sandra Hüller also deserves equal praise, with a performance of a hard-working businesswoman, she is a wonder to behold. Through her manners, her loneliness is crystal clear, she's an ambitious person who basically avoids any other social relation unless it's intended for the benefit of her business favor. They display something that's not only engrossing but also darkly humorous and rather affectionate while being figures who are estranged from their own life.

Lengthy with a cause, Toni Erdmann tells you a tale of silliness with depth, that's not only profound but also charming and delightful on its surface. While providing hoots of laughter, Toni Erdmann is still a sincere heart in full display, a tender and unconventional approach to human relationship without even masquerading under anyone's sentimentality. Surely, this 3-hour little piece of life will take you back to the most real human nature and doesn't hold back in giving us its fruitful and fulfilling inwardness. Surrounded by its solid cast, Toni Erdmann puts its characters into a fascinating trip of sardonic tightrope served in a biting sense. Even if it's not everyone's cup of tea, the outcome is still an immaculate and multifaceted character study, a beautiful, intimate, and dazzling frame of life that's exceptionally written and wonderfully acted with brilliant use of humor in agony, a heartfelt homage to love and its bonds.