This oddball German comedy is a true original that happens to be incredibly funny
The new German comedy Toni Erdmann shows that even the silliest of concepts can be transformed into something extraordinary.
Consider, for a moment, the premise of Maren Ade's film, finally released commercially after emerging as a critical darling at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a late middle-aged piano teacher with a fondness for practical jokes. When we first meet them, his relationship with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) has deteriorated - while not quite actively hostile, their conversations feel cold and detached.
In a bid to reconnect, Winfried decides to pay a surprise visit to his daughter in Bucharest. Ines - busy working as a consultant - has little time to spend with her father, and ultimately Winfried departs with little progress made. However, unbeknownst to his daughter, he decides to stick around Bucharest. With the assistance of silly wig, he adopts 'Toni Erdmann' as his alter ego. He then starts randomly surprising his daughter at various events, and to her horror starts getting dragged into her business and social circles.
It is, let's be fair, a preposterous concept. You can almost imagine how this would play out if, say, Adam Sandler was in the lead role. There's good reason to fear what may happen with the material if the threatened American remake comes to pass.
In execution, however, Toni Erdmann is legitimately magnificent. It is a slow-burn film, and some of its most memorable moments do not come until the film heads towards its third hour. But it's a film worth committing to, because the way it builds its pay-offs and punchlines makes this one of the finest cinematic comedies of the decade. Indeed, several sequences are so riotously funny that you'd be doing yourself an immense disservice to not watch in a cinema with a crowd.
At first, the humour is reasonably understated. We're invited to chuckle at the awfulness of Winfried's practical joking. Later, Toni begins lurking at the edge of the frame in something of a subtle running visual gag - the anticipation of his arrival as amusing as the inevitably awkward encounters that follow.
Then Ade - writing & directing her third feature - pulls out the big guns. Two major setpieces - both set at parties - pull everything together with wonderful aplomb. One scene - involving an impromptu performance of a Whitney Houston song - is an absolute delight of pure cringe comedy gold, while also serving as a welcome culmination of the characters' relationships to that point.
It's the second party, though, that guarantees Toni Erdmann's pride of place in the canon of modern cinematic comedies. I dare not spoil it, but let's just say it is a giddy case study in escalating farce and comedic nudity.
What elevates the film even further is how effective its storytelling is. Toni Erdmann, as mentioned, is a reasonably slow film in an often fast-paced genre. But the central relationship is beautifully and even poignantly developed, thanks in no small part to the exemplary work of Simonischek and Hüller. At its very best, this is a film where the comedy and drama brilliantly blend together - one particular sequence in a public park is as moving as its is utterly absurd.
Toni Erdmann is idiosyncratic for sure, its very particular sense of humour as likely to confuse as amuse. But give it a chance and let this strange, wacky, poignant and hysterically funny film have a chance to win you over.
Verdict: ★★★★★ Maren Ade's film is the rarest of gems - a true original that is likely to be remembered as one of world cinema's great comedies
Toni Erdmann (Rated 16 / 160 mins) is in select cinemas from February 3rd