The funniest film of 2016 is not the unwanted Bad Santa sequel or anything Paul Feig thinks suffices for comedy. No, the real deal is this out of nowhere German-Austrian tragicomedy which mixes kitchen sink realism with almost Michel Gondry-esque splashes of kooky surrealism. The two-and-a-half-hour plus semi-autobiographical comedy epic written and directed by Maren Ade tells the story of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced music teacher grieving the death of his dog.
In an effort to cope, he reaches out to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) who is enmeshed in the business consultation world and is all work with no play. Ines doesn’t know it yet but Winfried is about to turn her career life upside down with an endless, Andy Kaufman inspired series of pranks and practical jokes before being shunned and unexpectedly returning in the titular alter ego, Toni Erdmann.
Currently nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, one of the charms of this inspired bit of wackiness is the film’s ability to mix stark unfettered realism and howlingly funny bizarre sketch comedy together in the same scene. In a way, the weirder this thing gets, the more we can’t stop watching it. At heart is a touching father-daughter story yet it’s told in a manner we haven’t seen previously that feels at once authentic and fantastical.
One of the deceptive inner workings behind Toni Erdmann is that it also functions as an observant character study of both Winfried and Ines, giving each other equal time before turning them loose on each other. We’re also not sure who to side with as Winfried’s shaggy dog crooked toothed alter ego Toni Erdmann terrorizes Ines’ professional life. On the one hand Ines has every right to be appalled by her father’s actions, but on the other hand, much like the awful Neighbors that move in next door to John Belushi, all the gameplay is a ploy to get the target to lighten up a little.
Disarmingly ordinary in visual style with a minimal use of sound and music yet extraordinary in the go for broke performances by the two leads including probably the funniest nude scene since the naked fight in Borat, Toni Erdmann like the subject himself runs the risk of overstaying it’s welcome but ultimately makes up for the random lunacy by finally being genuinely heartwarming, even emotionally taxing. Some will be put off by the film’s outlandish and often just plain weird episodes as well as the length, but as for myself it’s a swell two-and-a-half hours that got more belly laughs out of me than any other film in the theater this year!
- Andrew Kotwicki