The poet, Philip Larkin, advised “don’t have any kids yourself” in his celebrated poem on parenting, “This Be The Verse.” In the film, “Toni Erdmann,” the dynamic between parent and child is explored to heroic, and hilarious, levels. Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller) is all business and seems to be doing well in her corporate career. But her father, Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), thinks he knows better.
Ines’s father knows his daughter is terribly unhappy and he aims to fix that. Part of his plan is to amuse her with his jokes. But the jokes keep getting more and more elaborate to the point that he dons an alter ego, Toni Erdmann, made up of fake clown teeth, fright wig, and nonstop blustering. It’s pretty maddening and just a matter of time before something has got to give.
“Toni Erdmann” is written and directed by Maren Ade. It is nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Foreign Film. And it so inspired Jack Nicholson that he has come out of retirement to play the lead, alongside co-star Kristen Wiig, in the upcoming American remake. Indeed, there is something special about this film so go seek out the original. But be prepared for a European view that certainly runs counter to your typical mainstream American big studio movie. But if you enjoy offbeat/absurdist humor, then this is definitely for you.
What I think may happen with the upcoming Americanized version is that all the playful and theatrical quality to this original film will be explained far more than necessary. The gritty European sensibility will most likely be wiped away in favor of something that seems to make more sense to most Americans. That said, dysfunctional families are every bit a part of the American scene as anywhere else. And, it is dysfunction that is at the root of this film. Ines, the daughter, is a mess. Winfried, the father, is a mess. But, despite a high level of tension between them, the two share a secret language and seem to be at their best in each other’s company. At least, there are enough positive signs to encourage the dad to keep trying to find his daughter.
Where it gets sort of weird is how insistent the dad is in his practical joke therapy path to winning over his daughter. Winfried Conradi cannot cope for very long without enacting some jarring gag. To say he is a compulsive jokester would be putting it mildly at best. No, this guy has some coping disorder and it’s pretty serious and kinda creepy. This film does address the dad’s problem but in a deceptively light way. It gradually builds. Before you know it, you’ve come to know this father and daughter in a truly remarkable way. And you come to realize that a rather heroic and rambling tale about a father and daughter can add up to a truly remarkable film.