Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Toni Erdmann"


It's easy to understand why Hollywood has already announced that it will remake Toni Erdmann with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.  Here's the much-sought-after one-sentence "logline" for the movie:

An aging hippy father shocks his uptight, successful executive daughter by paying her an unannounced visit, fooling her friends and co-workers into thinking he's a high-end "life coach" while teaching her that the greatest lesson life has to offer is how to be yourself.

That's the movie Hollywood wants to make, and somewhere within its long, strange, meandering running time of nearly three hours, that movie could be buried deep within Toni Erdmann.  Then again, it might not, it's really impossible to say.

The original, German version of Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, is not like Hollywood movies.  It's not really like most movies at all, though the one it comes closest to resembling is Sofia Coppola's luminous Lost in Translation, which has the thinnest of plots grafted on to moments of observation and insight.

If Toni Erdmann feels so often (and it does) like it is going nowhere and isn't quite sure how to get there, the measure of its success comes as it begins winding down, when the movie shocks you by making you realize just how much you have come to know its carefully created, but oddly aloof, set of characters.  Several of them come together buck-naked in a sleek Romanian apartment, where they're confronted by a massive, hairy cross between Bigfoot and a yak.  If that description sounds out-of-the-norm, wait until you see how the scene plays out -- and how sensical it all seems under the circumstances.

The reason all the characters are naked is that their host, the professionally severe Ines Condradi (Sandra Hüller), has decided that instead of trying so damned hard to make everything right, she's just going to let it all hang out.  It's very unlike Ines to try something so radical, but that's the influence of her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a man who's always been prone to practical jokes and goofy dollar-store costumes, but whose own sense of purpose and self is at a crisis point.

Ines is living in Bucharest, Romania, where she works as a consultant to help oil companies fire redundant employees.  She likes her work, and is good at it, but it's the kind of job that requires her to be Ines the Consultant at all times, and never Ines the Person -- and it's gotten to the point that Ines doesn't know who the latter is anymore.  In a corporate environment dominated by men, she's managed to become dominant, or pretty close to it.  She can see her father's unexpected visit only through her own irritated eyes -- and barely notices when her most important client takes a liking to the man.

Maybe he senses that he can help her professionally, or maybe he's just a crazy old man, but whatever the reason, Winfried stays in town without telling her.  Instead, he adopts a new persona: Toni Erdmann, frazzle-haired, buck-toothed life-coach to the executive jet set.  None of them buy it, but none of them quite know who he is, either.  He's just always kind of ... around.  And Ines doesn't unmask him: What could she say?  "Hey, boss and big new client, this is actually my dad, he's really crazy and I apologize for him?"  She lets him stick around.  And he keeps insinuating himself in her life and work in brazen ways.

The interesting thing I find writing about Toni Erdmann is that trying to piece it all together makes it sound like there's a plot, and I guess there is, you just don't really notice it while it's happening.  There are scenes about Ines's need for sexual control, and about the way she is trying to be a better and less stern kind of boss.  There are scenes in which she and Winfried try to reconcile their estrangement, and others in which she uses him as a strange sort of stage prop during a key meeting.  And then there's one very uncomfortable, but also very funny, scene in which father and daughter essentially crash a Romanian Easter party and Ines sings a karaoke version of "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston.

When it's over, she runs out of the room.  She has performed valiantly and done what her father asked, but now she doesn't want to share the same space with him.  And as so often happens in Toni Erdmann the conflict isn't resolved, the scene doesn't as much finish as simply end.  We're left to sort out our own feelings about what we've just seen.

Even its big climactic scene, in which Winfried dresses up in that huge sasquatch costume and Ines chases him through a park doesn't go for any specific emotion.  Like the rest of the film, it sets up the action and observes the results ... but doesn't try to play them for particular sorts of sentiment.  What you think of the decisions the characters make is largely up to you.  That holds true to the very final shot of Toni Erdmann, which comes after a scene of surprising warmth, compassion and happiness, and then leaves the audience not knowing quite what happened or what it meant.

Toni Erdmann doesn't want to force its own emotions on you.  It is an exercise in watching a sort of modernized cinema verité, in which what happens on the screen is more important than how the filmmakers explain or define it.

Toni Erdmann ends with a scene that makes utterly no attempt to tell you what it's supposed to mean. But everyone who sees it will have the same visceral reaction, and everyone who has that reaction will have the same emotional response.  And that is the real accomplishment of the film -- that after nearly three bewildering hours in which no character behaves (or even misbehaves) quite as we expect, in which the plot never takes us quite where we thought it would go, that after all that, it proves to have been so confident in its handling, so fully aware of its meaning that its final two or three shots combine to make an ending that rivals the muffled-whispers scene in Lost in Translation.

What exactly Ines and Winfried are trying to say to each other, just how much they are willing to be what the other one is hoping they they have become, is left up in the air.  Instead, we see Ines in her half-smile, and no one -- not the audience and not Ines herself -- is entirely certain that that expression means.

Toni Erdmann isn't sure what any of it means, I think.  And that, after two and a half hours or wandering around with its two leading characters, is what makes it work as well as it does.  No, we can't be sure what the meaning is, but we are reasonably confident we know whatever it is that will happen next, because we've gotten to know these characters.  We've even seen them naked.  And you know the old business joke: When you imagine everyone naked, you see all their shortcomings.  They've all got them.  Toni Erdmann takes it one step further: We see everything these characters have to offer, we see their shortcomings ... and we like them anyway.

If that doesn't tell you how deeply a film has met its goal of having you relate to its characters and come to regard them as real, dimensional people, then maybe nothing does.

Viewed Feb. 18, 2017 -- Laemmle NoHo 7


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