Who doesn’t love a good dad joke? Answer: depending on the joke, the child of the dad in question. And Toni Erdmann‘s premise is situated on the kind of extended dad joke that would understandably infuriate the child, even if the child is an adult herself.
Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a 60-something teacher who’s known for acting like a clown to those around him – the opening scene involves him pretending to be both himself and his convict brother to a postal worker – even when his schtick isn’t all that wanted. That’s particularly the case for his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a workaholic based in Bucharest. When Winifred decides to surprise Ines with a visit, his unpredictability threatens to upend the carefully structured plans Ines has put in place, which are already going pretty poorly anyway.
So when Winifred decides to leave, it’s a relief for Ines. Except Winifred doesn’t really leave. Instead, he reappears as Toni Erdmann, Winifred’s alter ego, and manages to pop up repeatedly in Ines’ personal and professional life. For an unexplained reason, she largely lets him, even though Toni’s presence threatens what she’s struggled to build for herself.
Toni Erdmann is a bit frustrating as a film. The film ultimately sides with what Winifred is doing, showing that Ines may be more compromised than she’d care to admit and in need of a shakeup. It’s hard to find Winifred as being good for Ines, though, when that unpredictability and attention-seeking behavior seems like a root of Ines’ issues in the first place.
That doesn’t make Toni Erdmann a bad film. While Winifred is frustrating as a character, Ines is intriguing. Watching her try to navigate a corporate world where she has to try and prove she’s good at what she does, while dealing with plenty of second-guessing and sexist actions, would be interesting enough, but it’s paired with the social life she manages to have, both through friendships and an affair that includes one of the more interesting, if fairly mundane, sex scenes I’ve seen in a film. And Ines is at the center of the film’s big payoff, a cringeworthy showstopper that only grows more fascinating the longer it goes on.
With the film’s success (it’s a frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, making the cut over better submitted works like Elle and The Handmaiden), an English-language remake is in the works with Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson (in what would be his first film in a decade). After watching the original, I can only hope the film can find a way to improve on the Winifred/Toni character without sacrificing the complexity of the Ines character. This film is maybe a bit too subtle with what it’s wanting its message to be, but an English language version runs the risk of smashing that subtlety to bits, which may actually be worse.