"You have to do this or that but meanwhile, life just passes you by."
If you are like me and think that a lot of mainstream comedy films have lost their edge (and by edge I mean the aspects that make them feel like a movie rather than just lightly edited improvisation or low brow parades of shock value) then I revel in the chance to experience something that is not only hilarious, but also has a cinematic feel. A film that has thematic weight, emotional arcs, excellent direction and succeeds in weaving these elements with comedy. In other news guess what I thought of the internationally acclaimed ‘Toni Erdmann’?
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced music teacher, an old-age hippie of sorts, with a passion for bizarre pranks involving several fake personas. When his beloved dog dies he tries to reconnect with his daughter Innes (Sandra Hüller), who is pursuing a successful career in business, but she is reluctant to embrace him as a part of her new life.
I could envision people being underwhelmed by ‘Toni Erdmann’ based on the reviews heading into news outlets. The first thing every other critic has said about the movie is how outlandishly hilarious it is, and while I profess to laughing several times throughout the film, it was not the humour that struck me the most. What left the biggest impression on me was its detailed portrait it painted not just of its individual characters, but of human relations and human behaviour in general. In fact if I can life the ideas raised in reviews by other people once more, many reviews noted that they could imagine Robin Williams being perfect in the lead role. Having seen the film I now understand exactly what they meant.
You see, despite ‘Toni Erdmann’ being a comedy of manners, absurdity and farce, it also delves into darker territory when it questions what drives a comedian/performer to feel a need to make everyone around him laugh. It is a subtle character study of inner pain as well as external hilarity that is at times comedic but at others tragically bittersweet. It uses subtle writing and implied histories to create characters that are not only engaging but also surpassingly complex. Though the runtime of 162 minutes would seem implausibly long, for the most part the film moves along with great pace due to how that runtime not only allows for numerous comedic situations but also to explore the dynamics between those characters in multiple ways to gain new insights into their relationship.
The film’s writer and director Maren Ade has yet to break through to mainstream audiences, but her reputation on the international circuit is highly sought. With ‘Toni Erdmann’ she has created a film that cannot really be classified into one category. Of course one could call it a comedy or a drama, but the way it blends those two contrasting elements together in such a cohesive and structurally sound way is incredible to behold. Even in the film’s most absurdly funny moments we are learning about the characters in a dramatic and complex manner. It gets to the point where you are unsure of whether a scene is designed to be funny or tragic because on multiple occasions it accomplishes both at the same time.
But to return to my original point, those going into ‘Toni Erdmann’ expecting a standard comedy film will most likely be confused. As well as integrating the tragic with the comic so brilliantly and poignantly, the film does so with such a unique vision that it almost catches you off guard. Its sense of humour is almost as absurd as its main character but at the same time the film is achingly realistic. One way it maintains this perfect balance is by including such rich detail in its storytelling. Though the trope of a rich business executive being an emotionally empty shell is a frequently used one, the film takes the time to illustrate why a person reaches that state. It shows the exhausting process of maintaining a career, the effort one puts into it and how in Innes’ case she has to fight even harder in the face of an environment tailored almost exclusively for men (which also gives an element of biting social commentary to the film as well). The same could be said for how ‘Toni Erdmann’ paints Winifred as a non-stop comedian, asserting that no one is that consistently funny without some inner desire to make others laugh by either forgetting their own pain or wanting to project their emotions onto others. The tremendous performances and understated direction only further illustrate these aspects of the film.
Even its emotions are intelligently handled. Rather than relying on simple emotional manipulation ‘Toni Erdmann’ trusts the viewer to take away from the film what they brought to it. So many comedy movies feel the need to tell the audience when to be happy, when to be sad, which characters they have to like and which ones not to. But a viewer could easily look at Winifred and find him infuriating with his continuous comedy, though they can still sympathise with him due to the three dimensional portrait the movie has crafted as well as how it makes things clear that while people’s actions are not always perfect from a different perspective their hearts re in the right place, such is the way in life.
A heartfelt, humane and often hilarious film, ‘Toni Erdmann’ is unique and beyond categorisation.