Comedy can sometimes be the only route to honesty, and it’s often the instrument that softens sharp truths. In Toni Erdmann, the latest from Maren Ade, humor of all sorts – broad, satirical and witty – is the foundation of the director’s humanist vision. This is the best film to premiere in competition so far at Cannes and one of the best comedies, if not the best, of the decade so far.
Ade is as inspired by the films of John Cassavetes as Saturday Night Live, but these are just two of the complimentary, not contradictory, points of reference. Both inclinations – art and populist – are perfectly homogenized in Toni Erdmann’s fresh worldview. This isn’t just any character study like most realist indies. Toni Erdmann is essentially three hours of comic sketches, while somewhat in line with dress-up comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire. The “one joke” here is that Winfried Conradi, a lonely, divorced and older man, disguises himself as Toni Erdmann, a business type with a ridiculous wig and fake dollar-store teeth. Estranged from his daughter, Ines, who works for a consulting firm that is helping to outsource Romanian jobs, Winfried implants himself in the middle of her cold, one-percenter lifestyle.
Winfried is lonely and his daughter lacks guidance. They need each other but they can’t connect. Through the façade and the distance of the caricature that Winfried creates, there is potential for reconciliation and liberation: reconciliation for a strained parental relationship and liberation from conditional friendships. The film is divided into a series of comic set-pieces: Winfried, as Toni, goes to the club with his daughter and her co-workers; Winfried, completely out of place, sits in on a meeting with the CEO of Ines’ major client; Ines, engaged in a sexual but not romantic relationship with a co-worker, teases and withholds sex to “keep her bite.” There’s a nude party sequence that is one of the funniest comic set-pieces I’ve ever seen, and I dare not spoil it.
Although these scenes are oriented around a simple, funny idea, the implications reach so much further. Every “sketch” lasts way longer than what is comfortable; the characters come closer and closer to their breaking point. When Toni goes with Ines to the factory where hundreds of workers will soon be laid off, the scene begins as a fish out of water comedy. We see the strain in the parental relationship, the political implications of Ines’ actions, and the immediate impact it has on the struggling workers. It becomes a profound tragedy.
Other moments start as a joke and evolve into outcries for connection and love. Disguised as a German ambassador, Toni takes Ines, who he calls his secretary, to a private party. Before leaving, Toni shows his gratitude by proposing that he and his assistant sing for them. Ines’ reaction of disbelief is baffling, but as the scene progresses and Ines continues to shout Whitney Houston’s cover of “The Greatest Love of All,” louder and louder each verse, what began as a joke, and remains one, is an exuberant expression of a soul in need. At the film’s press screening in Cannes, the audience was perplexed: laughing, cheering, applauding and crying — all at once. Toni Erdmann not only justifies every minute – every second, even – of its nearly three hour run-time, but it needs the extra space to function.
Toni Erdmann understands the nature of comedy and is so much more than its familiar premise. Broad humor and delicate sentimentality is the means to reaching transcendence. It’s only fitting that the most transporting moment happens while Winfried is in a hairy costume thing, except rather than being silly, it’s one of the most touching moments in any film this year.
With a perfect balance of heart and humor, Toni Erdmann transcends its clichéd premise, becoming one of the most tragic comedies of the decade so far.