DVD Review - Toni Erdmann

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards, many thought this movie had the highest chances of winning. It was the official submission from Germany. It was up for the Palme d'Or at its premiere at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. The movie went on to be recognized at the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice, the Cesár and the BAFTA Awards. It won the Spirit Award for Best International Film. It concerns the relationship between a middle-age father and his adult daughter. At nearly three hours, I'm not sure it's paced all that well. Some scenes are drawn out for comedic effect, perhaps too long, and other scenes are rather unnecessary. Writer-director Maren Ade would certainly argue that every moment is vital and important to the picture she's trying to paint, but that might be an argument she would lose with me.

Sandra Hüller stars as Ines Conradi, a financial consultant at Morrisons, a firm that's currently working with an oil company called Dacoil, which is based in Bucharest, Romania. She's a very serious woman. She doesn't joke around. This could be due to reactions to how she was raised or it's because she's in a male-dominated profession and she's as tough as she is due to sexism and male chauvinism.

Seeing Ines deal with being a woman in a male-dominated profession is when the movie shines. Ines tries to impress the CEO of Dacoil, a man named Titus Henneberg, played by Michael Wittenborn. At a party, he passes her off to his wife who wants to do shopping, but Ines has no interest in shopping. Ines is all about the details of business and a plan that may mean outsourcing for Dacoil. At the same time, Ines knows that being a pretty woman is important to these men, so she has to play into that. Seeing her navigate strongly or at times cautiously through her various business meetings is interesting, and it's these moments that make this film worthy of its praise.

Peter Simonischek co-stars as Winfried Conradi, the widowed father of Ines who is a total prankster. He pulls gags on random people. He especially likes to dress up and pretend to be someone else. He'll wear makeup á la Heath Ledger's Joker and unease people at social gatherings. He particularly likes putting in false teeth and slapping on a black wig, while acting like a life coach spinning wild tales. When he visits his daughter for her birthday, he decides to unleash his gags on her to loosen her up or to try to connect with her in a fun and lighthearted way.

It's these moments though that make this film not worthy of its praise. His gags or pranks aren't that funny or amusing. They're effective in occasionally unnerving Ines, but they end up being either lame or awkward. Maybe that's Ade's intention. Many films, especially those from Europe, utilize that kind of lame and awkward humor. Comedy is more subtle in a lot of independent and foreign films. That comedy is a personal preference. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. For me, it wasn't enough. It got to a point where I didn't care about Winifried as a character. He seems like a catalyst for Ines to be more liberated, more out in the open, but I'm not sure to what end.

The ending is a bit anticlimactic. I'm not sure what change or what difference there is by the end. A shocking thing happens in the final few minutes, which illustrates a change but the very last shot seems to cast doubt or ambiguity about the whole thing. Films of the past decade or so love ambiguous endings and not making declarative statements about much of anything in cinema.

In terms of things that perhaps weren't necessary, there is a bizarre sex scene. It's between Ines and fellow consultant Tim, played by Trystan Pütter. The two work together, while secretly having sex. In their sex scene, there is no intercourse. Ines never takes her clothes off. She just watches Tim masturbate onto a cupcake. She then eats the cupcake with Tim's semen as frosting. It's then never addressed or brought up again. Something like that is easy to throw in a porn film, but it makes no sense here.

By itself, it's a funny scene. Pütter and Hüller perform it very well. Pütter is just a horny, little boy and Hüller is such a deadpan dominatrix that it is rather hilarious, yet it feels so isolated. If this movie were more about Ines' love life, the scene might seem less isolated or out-of-place. It's a peek into her personal life just to add some depth to her, but it goes nowhere. Her whole relationship with Tim goes nowhere. I'm not sure why it's even in the movie.

The best moment is a rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" but of course not sung anywhere near as well. The oddest moment is when a man enters Ines' birthday party wearing a full-body, Bulgarian kukeri. It's the moment also captured on the movie's poster. I've never heard of a kukeri, but it looks like a Sesame Street costume that's a combination of Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus or Cousin Itt from The Addams Family.

It's so bizarre and so out of left field, so out of another universe, that despite being odd, it works because it's so shocking. If the movie had ended on that moment, that movie poster moment, it would have been great. Yet, the scenes after, the epilogue and such, are what ruin it. However, there is a lot about this film to recommend.

Rated R for language, graphic nudity, strong sexual content and brief drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 42 mins.


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