Stars: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
Director: Maren Ade
The concept of this highly acclaimed new German film dates back to when John Hughes or John Candy were making movies: an affable oaf of a character uses jokes, gags, and their comical demeanour to convince an uppity character not to take life so seriously. This new European take on this character dynamic is done amiably in Toni Erdmann, whose stark archetypal characters and light humour is bolstered by two great performances.
For a film just over two-and-a-half hours, this easy-going premise isn’t stretched too thin and the scenes exploring the nuances in these characters are given time to breathe. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a pranking kind of father who is trying to spend more time with his hard-working businesswoman daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), but she is reluctant because she believes he will jeopardise her career. So with the help of a bad wig and false dentures, he assumes the identity of Toni Erdmann and, although not changing his personality too much, approaches his daughter from a new perspective so that he can ween his way into her life, complete with his goofs and gags.
Although touted as a comedy film, Toni Erdmann for the most part feels closer to a family drama, with a few scenes of Ines and her dad providing some very sweet yet emotional father-daughter moments. The predicaments that this clownish dad gets into with his daughter are fairly amusing, especially to see how assertively she reacts to them, but aren’t laugh-out-loud funny or provide any gut-busters as the humour is pretty muted.
The film focuses fairly intensively on the work of Ines, as well as how her social connections also relate to her career and how she believes her dad will be seen as an embarrassing appendage of herself. It seems reasonably obvious as to how Ines reacts throughout the film to her dad’s antics, though Hüller makes sure that it doesn’t come across as too glaring as her character becomes more unpredictable near the film’s end.
This concept isn’t entirely new or original and has existed in all sorts of mainstream films and TV shows for decades now, but director Maren Ade freshens it up just a bit with a little less reliance on slapstick and more on the family relationship, making this a film more about Ines that the title character. Toni Erdmann has its laughs and its hysterical surprises, but they are few and far between in this lengthy film that uses its time wisely to explore these two characters and how they are inspired by each other to be more revealing.
Toni Erdmann plays at UWA Somerville from Mon 30 Jan-Sun 5 Feb, 8pm, and at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tues 7-Sun 12 Feb, 8pm. For more info head to perthfestival.com.au.