“She could, you have the feeling, change clothes, do something with her hair, and look ravishing in five minutes,” says the second paragraph of Entertainment Weekly’s 1991 interview with Madonna.
“And she’s done it, a thousand times. Only she could bring it off. There is, first of all, that body. And her blue humorous eyes, which pierce and search.”
Most of the profile’s intro goes on like this — the first paragraph is even coarser. It tries to humanize the world’s most famous woman in the world by relentlessly discussing how terrible she looks during the period in which the interview is taking place. Madonna, for the most part, is described as something of a victim of unrelenting, demanding work and the need to appeal to the materialistic approval of the public. When not being bombarded by the general populace, she looks like an everywoman. Only she looks octaves worse to an outsider because they’re so used to her looking appetizing during all commercial appearances. To see her not magazine ready is something of a shock.
Madonna and the heroine of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), don’t have much in common. In terms of identity and trajectory, that is. One is a shameless provocateur and purveyor of really great pop music. The other is a businesswoman who might as well consider herself to be in a relationship with stress and a mother to a cellular phone.
And yet they also seem exactly alike. To co-workers, family, and whoever she considers her friends, Ines is remarkably put together. Immaculately dressed. Golden hair wrapped into a tight honeysuckle configuration. Linguistically snide. She could size any man up and talk any bozo down. Maybe like Madonna during the moments of her career during which music comes second and entrepreneurial interest comes first.
But then there are moments aplenty wherein Ines looks and acts kind of like the unflattering version of Madonna Entertainment Weekly paints so vividly. In them, we don’t see the same humorless, oddly spotless business consultant. We see a susceptible lady who clearly wishes she knew how to do something other than work with a capital W. Who wishes she could develop relationships where a human connection were more prevalent than the bonding over occupation-related frustrations.
The disparity is compelling. We get the sense that Ines could simply dress up as if she were going to work during a particularly rough time behind closed doors and everything could be better again. But the film, so eager to reveal her deepest vulnerabilities, is driven to see her disposition wear down. To see what caused her to build a psychological wall in the first place.
It doesn’t take long to understand exactly why Ines the way she is: Toni Erdmann is a black comedy concerning her dysfunctional relationship with her eccentric, childish father, Winifried (Peter Simonischek). The two have been estranged for years, not because of some sort of unmentioned feudal tendencies but because Ines, so obsessed with success, is so ambitious in comparison to her lackadaisical dad that the differentiation is enough to have separated them. Plus, Ines is away on business in Romania, and has made it pretty clear that her family is hardly her biggest concern anymore.
But being divorced, jobless (save for a couple substitution gigs here and there — Winifried is a retired music teacher), and depressed, Winifried is desperate for a connection. Especially after his beloved dog dies of old age. So impulsively, the man travels to Bucharest, the city in which Ines is posted, and insinuates himself back into his daughter’s life just as she’s trying to make an important deal with an oil industry magnate.
Fortunately for Winifried, Ines is at a quasi-crossroads in her life, too: but if she’s willing to accept that truth is something of a different story.
Toni Erdmann is a study of a very rocky familial bond, an account of one man’s quest to attempt to harken back to the good old days when he and his daughter could live in a world unaffected by vocational responsibility.
To have an entirely renewed relationship by the film’s end certainly isn’t going to happen. But sequences in which Winifried misguidedly tries to win Ines back into his life — from handcuffing her and himself together to his somehow convincing her to perform a passionate rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” in front of a gathering of party guests — are unexpectedly poignant.
Winifried cannot see that almost everything he does to try to rebuild the father/daughter relation is loony and bound to turn Ines off even more. But his actions are touching because such immense sadness always underlines them. He just wants to add some structure to his life, but he’s incapable of doing the adding without also messing things up in the process. A lifelong prankster, he thinks laughter is the best medicine. Not here.
But Toni Erdmann is at its best when it shifts somewhere during its middle, a middle which seems less concerned by Winifried’s own plight — that’s reserved for everything preceding it — and more with Ines’ increasing disaffection. Her job is so immensely anxiety-ridden and so plagued by baked-in workplace misogyny which she eventually reaches her breaking point, a breaking point we see in all its glory. (She throws a birthday party, but, after getting frustrated with putting on her clinging dress, decides to host the event completely naked.)
The conclusion is touching, then, because Winifried and Ines do come to reach a point of understanding. In the most bizarre of a way, though: Winifried shows up to the aforementioned nude party in a Bulgarian kukeri costume, scares the shit out of everyone in the room, leaves the party and heads to a park, and is followed by Ines. And that leads to an embrace which makes it clear that most of the problems between our protagonists have been solved. Kind of.
The film is inarguably an effective character study, one which makes strides in concocting hyperreal characters and in persuasively drawing delicate relationships between them. Ade’s tricks are spectacularly astute writing and also an unwillingness to conform to the conventionalities of a standard running time.
But famously, Toni Erdmann is nearly three hours in length, and I go back and forth in my conviction as to whether such size is really necessary. One part of me is firm in its belief that these characters could not nearly be so intimately rendered if 40 or so minutes were scrapped. But then the another part is convinced that Abe is such a gifted artist that she could, undoubtedly, make use of an economic duration and still get ahead.
The two hours and 42 minutes which pass by sometimes can border on the tedious. But the lengthy finale, which features a tangle of truly great comedic set pieces, is something to cherish. And one can cherish the performances of Hüller and Simonischek, too. The characters they play are deeply weird (though Ines wouldn’t be so wont to admit it). Yet the pair of actors never lose sight of their humanity, hints of melancholy abounding even when a moment is seemingly giddily humorous.
Toni Erdmann is a challenging, (mostly) successfully aspirational tragicomedy, maybe even one of 2016’s best if you take to its accomplishments more than you do the emotional connections attempted to be made. I struggled, and continue to struggle, with its magnitude and that magnitude’s relationship to naturalism. A movie should not be epically mounted if it doesn’t span decades or if there isn’t a Robert Altman ensemble attached. Or if the film in question isn’t directed by King Vidor or Cecil B. DeMille. But most of what the movie does comes close to greatness — and that’s enough to make it a standout among its peers.