‘Toni Erdmann’ is an ode to family

From German writer-director Maren Ade, the film centers on the relationship between Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a sly-humored father known for being a practical jokester, and his somewhat estranged daughter Ines.

German writer-director Maren Ade earned a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival for Toni Erdmann, which triggered explosive buzz and immediately catapulted the film into the rarefied air of one of the best foreign language films of 2016. It’s an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. That might seem somewhat surprising when you consider that the premise centers on the relationship between Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a sly-humored father known for being a practical jokester, and his somewhat estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a career-driven consultant seeking to make her way in the male-dominated business world.

What emerges, once the father infiltrates and insinuates himself into his daughter’s life by posing as the life coach of her client, is an epic battle of wills. Winfried adopts the outrageous “Toni Erdmann” persona, which settles into place once he slips in his gaping fake teeth, and struggles to envision Ines achieving any degree of contentment while she devotes every waking moment to a job with few life-affirming rewards. His constant needling and questioning about her life at first serve only to annoy Ines, until his presence starts to awaken the long-dormant DNA links she shares with Winfried.

It is fascinating to watch a film about a perceived reversal in the dynamic between a parent and child and that espouses a sense of the care-free and the absurd without wallowing in juvenilia. While we occasionally get Type-A children who are forced to babysit their immature elders, the generally accepted iteration looks more like Dirty Grandpa, with its eagerness to “raunch up” the sitcom-styled proceedings with no regard for how comedy works in real life. 

There has been early discussion centering on Jack Nicholson as the father in an American remake. I find myself wondering about the necessity of the project. Ade, Simonischek and Hüller have crafted a loving ode to familial relationships that achieves universality in its own right. We don’t need another Toni Erdmann in the thunderdome of a multiplex. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (R) Grade: A

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