Toni Erdmann is one of those rare films enshrined as a masterpiece almost immediately. Its premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was heralded with an onslaught of glowing reviews, followed by best film of the year accolades from the likes of Cahiers du cinema and Sight & Sound. At the 2016 Sydney Film Festival, I missed the film – instead choosing to see Personal Shopper – but the reaction from my friends and fellow critics after the screening was uniformly positive.
Perhaps that goes some way to explaining my lukewarm reaction to the film when I finally saw it. It’s almost impossible to divorce one’s expectations, good or bad, from one’s reaction to a film, and my expectations of Toni Erdmann – an unconventional, rip-snorting comedy with genuine insight into the human condition …or something like that – could only eclipse the film itself. Maren Ade’s Academy Award-nominated film is far from a bad film; I don’t mean to pose an ‘emperor has no clothes’ argument. But I remain unconvinced it’s a modern masterpiece.
Part of me does wonder if the critical reception of the film is informed by its film festival context; while there’s great diversity amongst the program of any half-decent festival, the kind of ‘festival films’ you hear about tend to be socially progressive, traditionally structured dramas that offer allegories or commentaries upon the Life We Live Today. In short, they’re not generally a laugh riot. As a comedy – of sorts – maybe Toni Erdmann stands out simply for being a breath of fresh air in what can seem like a stale cinema.
That’s likely a disingenuous take, though – while critics may have appreciated the change of pace offered by Erdmann, I doubt that’s sufficient to justify 5 star reviews for a giggle or two. Anyway, it’s not like the film is the pure comedy you – or I! – might have expected; there are a couple of knockout, laugh-at-loud sequences, but for the most part it plays more sad than funny. The film centres on successful business consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller) and her anarchic, walking dad-joke of a father Winfried (aka ‘Toni Erdmann, life coach’) as played brilliantly by Peter Simonischek. (Whatever reservations I have about the film, they don’t extend to Simonischek’s performance.) Winfried is an agent of chaos, but there’s an intricate sadness to his comedy, something disappointed and disappointing and self-deprecatory. In most scenes, the laughs are stifled by the recognition that his oversized, Gene-Parmesan shenanigans are a coping mechanism.
That’s a vein that I wish the film had mined with more substance. While the film has been (justly) praised for its absurdist, climactic party sequence – which mixes a mental breakdown with nudity and ridiculous costumes to great effect – the moments that really resonated for me were the smaller, sadder moments. The understanding that maybe life really is a sad joke, a lie we tell ourselves to cope with the exploitation and the selfishness and all that shitty stuff we try to ignore. When Toni Erdmann is in that mode, I see those flickers of greatness that other critics celebrated.
My reasons for not loving the film as much as everyone else seemed to are hard to nail down. Yes, to an extent it’s that it’s not funny enough, and not sad enough either. Really, I think it comes down to the seeming familiarity of a film celebrated for its unconventionality, its unexpectedness. The core of Toni Erdmann is a daughter twisted by corporate culture into something arch and unfeeling, the kind of woman who berates hotel employees for minor fuckups – and her father, an anarchic if uncertain force of nature. In short, it’s a more sophisticated version of the kind of family friendly film popular in the ‘90s – generally starring Jim Carrey or Robin Williams – where a corporate shill learns to love and laugh again.
That’s a simplification, granted. Toni Erdmann isn’t a film where a few jokes and a pair of false teeth solve the scourge of late capitalism. But it resonates so strongly with that model that, for me, most of the film’s wildest moments – like Ines breaking out into a Whitney Houston cover – feel somehow predictable. The business types in the film are self-centred and hard-hearted; the poverty-stricken locals threatened by Ines’ project are benevolent and beatific. These characterisations don’t make the film worthless, but they do make it hard for me to recognise it as a modern masterpiece.