Two of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Foreign Language Film are built around the perennial cinematic convention of old dudes behaving badly. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, based on an international best-selling novel, centers on a grumpy old man who makes life unpleasant for his neighbors but in the end turns out to have a heart after all. It’s trite and predictable but still entertaining. The German comedy Toni Erdmann, an original screenplay by writer/director Maren Ade, follows a more whimsically oriented old man, who drops himself into his daughter’s high-stress corporate life and tries to get her to lighten up and examine her choices. Both movies are worth seeing, but while A Man Called Ove is merely in a foreign language—we can imagine Walter Matthau, Jack Nicholson, or Bill Murray doing the exact same script in English—Toni Erdmann is a foreign film in every sense of that term. the tone is bone dry, the characters are unfailingly deadpan, the length is disquietingly protracted, and the filmmaking style is observational rather than manipulative. In fact, watching this movie cold with no audience one might get halfway through it before realizing it is a comedy at all. But Toni Erdmann is a comedy, a very funny comedy, with themes that resonate long after you’ve seen it.
The unabashed Germanness of the picture is the key to its success, though this is not one of those overly-quirky imports that shamelessly pander to the aging arthouse crowd. This movie is as unpredictable as its titular protagonist. Toni Erdmann does not deliver its big laughs or explore its engaging subtext in expected ways. The two leads create intriguing, multi-dimensional characters we can’t take our eyes off of. And because Ade never sets up traditional gags, makes motivations very clear, or telegraphs cues as to how we’re meant to react to what she puts on screen, we find ourselves on the edge of our seats throughout the entire two hours and forty-two minutes, eager to see what will happen next.
Peter Simonischek stars as an oddball practical joker named Winfried Conradi, a divorced semi-retired music teacher who frequently slips into a fright wig and goofy fake teeth to mess with people in the guise of his alter ego Toni Erdmann. He decides that his humorless, hyper-controlled daughter Ines is overly consumed with her work as a business consultant in Romania, and arrives unannounced at her office in Bucharest. Ines attempts to deal with him without risking the high-stakes work assignment she hope will score her a promotion.
Sandra Hüller gives one of the year’s best performances as Ines, a driven, no-nonsense capitalist who rejected the anarchic, hippy-dippy attitudes of her father and embraced the establishment. She’s as dedicated to not letting her father embarrass her as she is to successfully impressing the arrogant, soulless businessmen she works with. Watching her interact with her colleagues—those of higher, equal, and lower status—provides as much incite into her character as seeing her try to navigate her father’s unwelcome presence. Both actors possess a willingness to go wherever Ade requires them, which often extends into the realm of farce, without loosing credibility or their inherent humanity.
Ironically, it’s Toni Erdmann (not A Man Called Ove) that is in line for an American remake, with both Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson apparently interested in playing the title role. It will be fascinating to see if this material can survive a Hollywood adaptation. Hopefully it will score a female director, as much of what makes the picture work so well is its subtle feminist commentary. That, like so much else about this film, could easily get lost (or overdone) in translation.