‘Toni Erdmann’ follows its own offbeat path

First Published      Last Updated Feb 16 2017 06:04 pm

Writer-director Maren Ade's German comedy "Toni Erdmann" — the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film — is a wildly hilarious, crazily off-kilter and touchingly honest story of a father-daughter relationship that's both modern and timeless.

Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek) is a retired music teacher with a talent for practical jokes, none of which amuse his adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a corporate consultant who's always away on business or glued to her cellphone. Winfried surprises Ines with an unannounced visit in Bucharest, where she's working on a deal. The visit is a disaster, because she's too busy to talk to him and groans at his prankish humor.

Winfried leaves Bucharest, disappointed but undaunted. Soon, Ines finds a new person chatting up her work companions at the bar. He introduces himself as Toni Erdmann, a consultant and life coach to Ines' CEO. Ines, and we, recognize Toni is Winfried in a cheap suit and funny wig. (In fact, he looks like someone trick-or-treating as John Travolta's character from "Pulp Fiction.")

When Ines confronts her dad, he doesn't break character. Being Toni, it turns out, frees Winfried to tell his daughter what he thinks of her career ambitions and icy demeanor. It also frees up Ines, who takes Toni's awkward truth-telling as a challenge to loosen up and be honest with her male superiors. (When one of them tries to compliment her and insult her simultaneously, and calls her a feminist, she replies, "I'm not a feminist, or I wouldn't put up with the likes of you.")

Ade's script constantly defies expectations and dodges predictability. She stages scenes — like when Toni goads Ines into singing Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" to a roomful of Romanians — that are epic in their comic awkwardness and raw emotional power. And, as a director, she coaxes brilliant performances from Simonischek as the teddy-bearish dad and Hüller as the exasperated daughter.

Toni's "life coach" shtick with Ines' bosses, who run a consulting firm hired to downsize a Romanian oil company so the owners don't have to be the bad guys, also serves to neatly satirize the banal corporate doublespeak that is slowly rotting Ines' soul.

Through his confrontational prankishness, it turns out, Winfried is on a rescue mission, not just to salvage his relationship with Ines but to save her from a miserable life. That mission, and the odd ways it plays out, makes "Toni Erdmann" the weirdest and warmest daddy-daughter date the movies have given us in a long time.


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‘Toni Erdmann’

A dad goes to extreme measures to reconnect with his business-minded daughter in this wild and warm-hearted comedy.

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When » Opens Friday, Feb. 17.

Rating » R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use.

Running time » 162 minutes; in German with subtitles.