“TONI ERDMANN” My rating: B (Opens Feb. 17 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)
162 minutes | MPAA rating: R
The key to comedy is snappy timing.
But Maren Ade, the writer and director of the Oscar-nominated (for foreign language film) “Toni Erdmann,” has given us a languid comedy with a running time of nearly 3 hours.
This is either genius or suicidal.
Turns out it’s a little of both.
The title character doesn’t even exist. He’s the goofy alter ego of Winifried (Peter Simonischek), a white-haired, bearded German piano teacher with a bizarre sense of humor displayed in the first scene, when he meets a deliveryman at his door.
Winifried notes that the package is addressed to Toni Erdmann, whom he tells the delivery guy is his brother, a mad bomber just out of prison. He wonders aloud if the package contains explosives or porn, then vanishes to consult with his brother Toni. Yelling is heard from deep in the house.
Seconds later he’s back, this time in his Toni persona, a key element of which is a ragged set of humongous false teeth.
There’s a method to Winifried’s deadpan tomfoolery, a therapeutic way of mocking an increasingly joyless modern world.
For evidence of that joylessness he need look no farther than his own daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a thirtysomething petroleum industry consultant now living in Romania.
Ines is a committed career woman and desperately unhappy, although she won’t admit it. She sweats bullets over the demands of her job, daily negotiating the shark tank of corporate politics. She wants to be a major player, yet finds herself organizing shopping excursions for a client’s wife.
Her best friend is her smart phone. She’s engaged in a perfunctory affair with a co-worker. She can’t even relax with a massage, because it’s not brutal enough: “I’m not paying 100 Euros to be petted,” she fumes.
Ade’s slowly unfolding plot finds Winifried making an unannounced visit to Bucharest where he basically stalks Ines. Then, donning his false teeth and an absurdly ratty black wig, he starts passing himself off to his daughter’s business associates as her lifestyle coach.
Gradually his calculated absurdism breaks down Ines’ brittle business persona, culminating with a housewarming party in which she answers the door stark naked and expects her guests to follow suit. At last she has truly become her father’s little girl.
Individual scenes in “Toni Erdmann” work beautifully. The acting, particularly by Simonischek and Hüller, walks a fine line between the comedic and the fiercely realistic (this is not a film that announces its laughs and waits for a sitcom-ish roar from the audience). There’s real heart beneath the foolishness.
The question is whether Ade needed nearly three hours to tell her story.
Here’s my wish: A two-hour edit of “Toni Erdmann” that picked up the pace without sacrificing any of the delicious character content.
| Robert W. Butler