While writer/director Maren Ade’s wonderfully authentic, insightfully tender father-daughter long-term passion project Toni Erdmann — a three-hour German dramedy that’s as bitterly sad as it’s screamingly funny — might walk home with an Oscar under its sleeve by the end of the weekend, most American audiences will soon know it best as the source material for its expected —if ultimately unwelcomed — upcoming English-language remake, which is set to take Jack Nicholson out of retirement alongside co-star Kristen Wiig in the female lead.
They’re excellent picks for the parts, even if they’re setting themselves short in the long run. For what makes Toni Erdmann such a distinct triumph is everything Hollywood tends to neglect. Ade’s overextended, uncomfortable, downplayed and extremely somber-filled film — directed with astounding care and written with tremendous sensitivity and reflective introspection — is not your average warm-hearted crowd-pleaser. It’s terrifically entertaining. Don’t get me wrong. It’s downright remarkable how fast these 162-minutes fly by. In comparison, the equally exceptional, if harder to bare, Silence is one minute shorter. Toni Erdmann might seem like a slog on paper, but it’s truthfully anything but.
This intensely intimate, yet never unendurable, unconventional-yet-deeply-human relationship drama is confrontational in its comedic scenarios, yet highly reserved when it comes to their mostly-realistic execution. The result is a broad comedy filmed like a melancholy tragedy, and that’s what makes it funnier and sadder. It contains all the beats of a broad, wacky, over-the-top comedy, but it’s told in a subdued, lugubrious manner. That, in turn, gives an added dramatic weight to all the comedic situations, yet every laugh comes with a great resonance, if only because the plain approach makes the humor all-the-more unexpected in its dry, unassuming manner. There’s a solid chance that won’t be found in the bigger, broader, (likely) raunchier American remake we’ll get in a few years.
What exactly is the plot? Well, surprisingly, there’s not much of one. Suffering from a late quarter crisis, old prankster Winfried (Peter Simonischek) keeps himself preoccupied with silly wigs, comically absurd teeth and school-related incidents involving skeleton make-up. It’s a peaceful life, but it’s also a lonely one. His successful daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) doesn’t see him that much these days, and his only companion, his dog, tragically passed. Trying to find meaning in a lonesome world he once found overserious and high-minded, he bombards Ines with a surprise work visit in order to give her a belated birthday celebration. But when the unexpected trip is soon cut short with shouting and heavy emotions, Winfried later returns as Toni Erdmann, his wacky, weird, wigged, funky teethed alternate alias.
From there, Ines and Winfried are met with more comedic situations, laced with despair. It’s not exactly everyone’s idealistic drama-comedy selection, but for those (like me) who prefer something a little more subdued and bittersweet and meaningful, it’s kinda perfect. A lot of the actions on-screen are loud and exciting in theory, but in their delivery, they feel more natural and inviting than you can ever imagine. The movie flows with its own unique rhythm, and while it is bizarre, there’s a believability to the madness that’s bewitching.
There are goofy fake teeth, whoopie cushions, outrageous wigs, spontaneous karaoke, even more spontaneous nude birthday parties and lewd actions performed on small cupcakes, yet it’s all played straight. It’s supposed to be funny, mind you, and it often is, but there’s a subtracted exaggeration that brings everything down-to-earth in a touching, pointed way. To call it comedy ultimately sells it short. To call it drama would undercut just how funny the movie can ultimately be. To call it a dramedy undercuts the values of both. Toni Erdmann is a strange little (i.e. long) film of manners and errors which finds the gloom in comedy and the hilarity in dramatics. It’s a method of madness that’s all its own. I doubt any film can recreate this specific kind of success, let alone a bunch of Hollywood execs.
Nicholson is excellent in the right type of role, and Wiig’s best work is when she gets to play the straight woman, just like she will in this newest film. They’re pretty great choices, but they’ve got some mighty big shoes to fill in order to top Simonischek and Huller. Both inject such a warmth, humility and undemanding sentimentality that’s hard to recreate. Their performances are excellent because they don’t really feel like characters, but people. Under a different director, they would become caricatures. Under Ado, they’re just human.
Toni Erdmann is a classic example of a lightning in a bottle success. It’s strange, specific, individualistic and unique enough to walk this unusual, extended tight-rope with assurance, dedication and natural ease. If an American remake can pull that off, all the power to it. Ado isn’t telling an earthshaking story of maturity, acceptance and family. Rather, she’s telling a weird story in a deeply relatable manner. It’s incredibly good mainly because it’s incredible that it’s this good at all. But it is, and that’s why we should celebrate it, see it, revisit it, then hope to find that same success in another, totally different film. I’ll admit, there’s likely a 1 in 10 chance Toni Erdmann‘s U.S. remake is actually really good. There’s also a 3 in 10 chance it might end up OK, depending on the filmmaker attached. But why take those odds? Instead, let’s celebrate this brazenly, incredibly unique movie on its own.
Or not. Let’s go ahead and make that remake. If anything, it gives me a proper excuse to revisit the incredible original. I suppose, if nothing else, the remake will bring a little good.