‘Toni Erdmann’ a rich comedy of embarrassment

Although I’ve had my doubts about Halloween since I was a kid, it took Toni Erdmann to confirm what I disliked about disguises. As Winfried, the music teacher with peculiar ideas about reconnecting with corporate headhunter daughter Ines (Amour Fou‘s Sandra Hüller), Peter Simonischek acts with fake teeth and a horrible wig that makes him look like the wannabe hip manager of a hair metal band. Shadowing her in Bucharest as she flits from bosses to clients, Winfried pretends to be the pseudonymous Toni Erdmann, “life coach,” assigned to help a friend mourn the loss of a pet turtle. Ines’ colleagues and potential clients react to his unnerving presence with genuine curiosity; they invite him to loft parties and allow him to buy champagne. Ines, sidelined, flashes tight-lipped smiles.

When I saw Toni Erdmann in December, I wasn’t sure how writer-director Maren Ade wanted me to respond. Why Ines tolerated her father in the first place stretched credulity. A second viewing last week reinforced Ade’s achievement. Apart from capturing the nuances of thwarted love and the ways in which children deny commonalities with their parents, Ade choreographs a semi-serious dissection of the embarrassment under which corporate culture thrives. Toni Erdmann stays taut for three hours; it creates genuine suspense in a manner that Carol Reed might have approved. Are these people going to get away with this? (“Simonischek and Hüller seem to be as amazed as we are by the things their characters lead them to do,” Amy Taubin wrote after its Cannes premiere). I’ve never seen anything like it.

Although viewers are familiar with Toni Erdmann‘s two most (in)famous set pieces — Ines giving a committed karaoke performance of Whitney Houston’s bathetic “The Greatest Love of All” for a family that looks less impressed than we are; an apartment party at which she greets guests in the nude and requires the same of them — I was struck this time by two smaller but no less poignant moments. Early in the film, Ines glances out an office window at an ugly undeveloped plot of land sandwiched between clean and no less ugly modern structures: is she thinking about what grotesque boutique hotel serving Eastern European plutocrats will eventually rise in its place? Speaking of hotels, the other memorable scene is set beside Ines’ own ghastly own swimming pool: unimpressed by the masseuse who didn’t “beat her up,” she orders a lackey to bring two glasses of champagne, OJ, and — nice touch — a pair of club sandwiches for her and Winfried.

Her imperiousness is supposed to demonstrate her ruthlessness, but Toni Erdmann instead demonstrates how badly Ines plays at being a plutocrat. She’s supposed to be able to persuade clients to “downsize” and perhaps “outsource,” but they and she are not persuaded, in part because they sense she’s putting quotation marks around the jargon they use with committed fluency. When she says to her father, “The more he fires, the less I have to fire” she sounds relieved, not tough. At a nauseating meeting with the head of the company that Ines has been assigned to eviscerate, she doesn’t even bring a pen — she has to borrow his. Is Winfried any worse than Ines’ boss humiliating her by criticizing her approach in front of clients, or any more uncouth and loutish than her coworkers and clients partying at strip clubs and pretending empty champagne bottles are cocks?

Throughout Ade’s camera, restless but watchful, keeps its distance; Toni Erdmann is a miracle of unobtrusive camera work, eschewing, say, Cristian Mungiu’s pseudo-documentary realism. Like 2010’s remarkable Everybody Else, which depicted a couple falling out of love, Toni Erdmann risks filming the banal because Ade understands that life doesn’t consist of a series of privileged moments so much as an ever expanding compendium of rehearsed and received gestures that on occasion we may have the inclination to parse. Sometimes all it takes is a late middle aged man in a wig and teeth. Even with Winfried as Toni Erdmann in her circle, Ines nevertheless keeps a large part of herself in shade. At the nude birthday party her non-chalance creeps out the guests (“I’m definitely not getting undressed, it’s not my deal,” offers one, in another example of Ade’s pitch-perfect ear for dialogue). “For team building,” Ines says when sensing the unasked question, as if smiling at a private joke. She should be smiling — she’s exacted her quiet revenge.

GRADE: A

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